Transform Transportation

Strategies for a healthier future

America's transportation system is wrecking our health. Traffic-related air pollution kills an estimated 58,000 Americans every year, and increases the risk of serious health conditions, including lung cancer, stroke, heart disease, asthma, and even dementia.
There is a better way. By rebuilding our transportation system to give more people the option to spend less time in a car, by expanding access to active means of travel such as walking and biking, and by adopting zeroemission electric cars and buses, we can make our transportation safer, healthier,cleaner and more efficient.


Illinois PIRG Education Fund

America’s transportation system is wrecking our health. 

Traffic-related air pollution kills an esti mated 58,000 Americans every year, and  increases the risk of serious health condi tions, including lung cancer, stroke, heart  disease, asthma, and even dementia. More  than 38,000 people die in vehicle crashes in  the U.S. every year and millions more are  seriously injured. Even our mental health  and the health of our relationships are at  risk – the time we spend driving, much  less the time we spend stuck in stressful  traffic, is time away from family, friends,  exercise and leisure pursuits.  

These health problems are a direct result of  the way we’ve built our communities and  our transportation system to be dependent  on travel in fossil fuel-powered cars. Every  year, Americans drive more than 3.2 tril lion miles – nearly 10,000 miles per person  and more miles per capita than people  almost anywhere else in the world. Since  1990, the number of vehicle miles trav eled by light-duty vehicles like cars and  light-duty trucks has risen by more than 46  percent.

There is a better way.  

By rebuilding our transportation system  to give more people the option to spend  less time in a car, by expanding access  to active means of travel such as walk ing and biking, and by adopting zero emission electric cars and buses, we can  make our transportation safer, healthier,  cleaner and more efficient. 

Transportation is a leading cause of air  pollution that shortens lives and makes  people sick. 

In 2019, the transportation sector produced  55 percent of the nation’s emissions of nitro gen oxides (NOx) – a component of ozone  smog – 16 percent of all emissions of volatile  organic compounds (VOCs), and 2.7 percent  of all emissions of primary particulate mat ter, often known as soot.

This pollution causes or exacerbates a range  of serious health conditions, including:  

  • Cancer: Diesel exhaust is classed as  a potential cancer agent by the World  Health Organization and the U.S. EPA.6 Exposure to diesel exhaust has been  associated with higher rates of lung  cancer and greater risk for bladder  cancer.7 Particulate matter and nitrogen  dioxide, emitted in vehicle exhaust, have  both been associated with increased risk  for lung cancer. 
  • Stroke: Long-term exposure to particu late matter is associated with an up to 21  percent higher risk of stroke.
  • Heart and lung disease: Exposure  to nitrogen dioxide, found in vehicle  exhaust, has been linked to heart and  lung diseases and premature death.  Exposure to particulate matter can result  in vascular damage and accelerated  decline of lung function.
  • Asthma: Exposure to vehicle exhaust  causes and exacerbates childhood  asthma, and recent research suggests it also damages lung development even  in non-asthmatic children, leading to  increased risk of respiratory and cardio vascular diseases in later life.
  • Dementia and cognitive decline among the elderly: One study estimates that  between 7 and 11 percent of dementia  cases among individuals living within 50  meters of a major road are attributable to  traffic exposure.

The 45 million Americans who live in  close proximity to busy roads or other traf fic-related infrastructure are at increased  risk from the health impacts of traffic related pollution. 

  • Studies have found increased prevalence  of asthma in children living within 100  meters of a freeway. One study estimat ed that over 27,000 cases of childhood  asthma in Los Angeles County were  at least partly attributable to pollution  associated with living close to a major  road.
  • Living close to a major road increases the  chances of suffering from an ischemic  stroke by 42 percent and significantly  increases the likelihood of dying as a  result.
  • Higher levels of noise and air pollution are  associated with increases in coronary heart  disease (CHD) mortality. One study found  that individuals exposed to the highest  levels of noise pollution are 22 percent more  likely to die as a result of CHD than those  exposed to the lowest levels. 

American society’s dependence on cars puts  us at risk every time we take to the roads,  whether or not we’re in a car ourselves.  

  • Every year, approximately 38,000 Ameri cans are killed in car crashes, making  car crashes the leading cause of death for  Americans between the ages of 1 and 54. 
  • In 2018, nearly 6,300 pedestrians and more  than 800 cyclists were killed in traffic related accidents, with more pedestrian  and cyclist fatalities on the roads in 2018  than in any year since 1990.

Driving even takes a toll on the health of  drivers themselves. Excessive driving can  lead to a range of health impacts, including:  

  • Chronic stress and poor mental health: Commuters who travel to work by car  experience substantially higher levels of  stress, more negative moods and lower  satisfaction with life than those who take  active modes of transport. 
  • Obesity and high blood pressure: People  with long car commutes are more likely to  be obese and to have higher blood pressure.  They are also less likely to do the recom mended amount of physical activity, putting  them at increased risk of diabetes, cardiovas cular disease, osteoporosis, metabolic risk  syndrome and certain kinds of cancer. 

America’s transportation system is the  nation’s number one source of greenhouse  gas emissions and the largest single con tributor to the climate crisis, which will  harm public health for decades to come.  

In 2018, transportation accounted for 28 percent  of the nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions  – more than any other sector of the economy. If emissions continue at their current level, the  impacts on public health will be severe. 

  • Extreme temperatures will kill more  people. As climate change makes extreme  variations in temperature more common,  deaths and hospitalizations from extreme  heat and cold will rise.
  • Shifting weather patterns and high pollution will create high concentrations of ozone in some areas, causing more  premature deaths and hospitalizations due  to respiratory illness.
  • Climate change will bring more disease, as shifting temperatures lead  to geographic shifts of disease-carry ing insects like ticks and mosquitos. Warmer weather will increase the preva lence of pathogens like E. coli and salmo nella, which thrive in hot and humid  conditions.

To address the health and environmental  damage our transportation system causes,  we need to completely transform the way we travel. And there are steps we can  take right now, using proven policies and  existing technology, that can help elimi nate traffic-related pollution and move  America’s transportation system towards a  greener, healthier future: 

Getting more people moving by foot, bike and transit can immediately reduce both global warming emissions and the  toxic pollutants from our car-dependent  transportation system. Walking and biking  infrastructure has been shown to benefit  communities in a variety of ways, including  increased safety, improved health and hap piness, and more freedom for older adults  and people with mobility issues.  

The U.S. should at least double the num ber of people who travel by foot, bike or  transit by 2030. To achieve this goal, policy makers should: 

  • Ensure that walking, biking and transit  are safe, affordable, accessible and enjoy able through infrastructure expansion  and improvements. 
  • End subsidies that make driving artifi cially cheap to help make low-carbon  transportation the easiest, cheapest, most  convenient option. 

Phasing out fossil fuel vehicles can enable  the U.S. vehicle fleet to operate with zero  greenhouse gas emissions from driving  or charging, if such a shift is accompanied  by a transition to a grid powered by clean,  renewable energy. Electric vehicles also ben efit public health, as they do not emit harm ful tailpipe emissions that cause cancer,  asthma and other health problems.

All new light-duty cars and trucks sold after 2035 should be electric vehicles. To  achieve this goal, policymakers should: 

  • Set requirements to phase out fossil  fuel-powered vehicles and adopt EV  mandates. 
  • Make EVs cheaper to buy and own  through tax credits and other incentives. 
  • Expand and improve EV charging infra structure. 

Electrifying and improving transit can cre ate clean transit fleets for cities and schools,  particularly if those fleets are powered by  clean energy. Electric buses emit no tailpipe  pollution and would significantly improve the  health of children who take school buses and  the urban populations often served by buses.

U.S. transit agencies and school districts should replace all transit and school buses with clean electric buses by 2030. To  achieve this goal, policymakers should: 

  • Adopt electric bus commitments at all  levels of government, including at transit  agencies and school districts. 
  • Provide transit agencies with financial  and technical assistance to help them  make the switch to electric buses while  maintaining or increasing service.

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