The Persistent Racial Disparities of Motor Vehicle Pollution

Black and brown neighborhoods are exposed to pollution from big roads at elevated rates, with serious negative consequences for public health. Photo: Ken Lund/Flickr
Black and brown neighborhoods are exposed to pollution from big roads at elevated rates, with serious negative consequences for public health. Photo: Ken Lund/Flickr

The environmental racism that’s part of our transportation system doesn’t announce itself out loud. It doesn’t march down the street carrying tiki torches.

But if you look at the outcomes of public policy over the years, the result has been systemic disadvantages for predominantly black and brown neighborhoods, be it in the form of higher pedestrian fatality rates or worse access to jobs.

Air quality expert Tim Kovach recently came across new research showing how racial and class disparities continue to linger in exposure to air pollution from cars and trucks.

Racial discrimination in housing and transportation policy going back generations led to elevated rates of vehicle pollution-related health problems in communities of color, which tend to be closer to big roads and highways. While recent government efforts to clean up tailpipe emissions have lowered air pollution across the board, racial disparities persist in exposure to fine particles from motor vehicles, Kovach reports:

In a study published last month in Environmental Health Perspectives, three researchers from the Universities of Minnesota and Washington examined disparities in exposure to transportation-related air pollution (TRAP) by race and socioeconomic status from 2000 to 2010.

As the authors note, racial minorities and low-income households are significantly more likely to live near major roads, which exposes them to nearly three times the level of TRAP. While efforts to clean up vehicles helped reduce nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels by 37% from 2000-2010 in the US, we do not know how this affected disparities in exposure.

In order to explore this question, the authors analyzed the relationship between TRAP exposure and demographic data at the Census block level in 2000 and 2010.

In 2000, the block groups with the highest share of nonwhite residents had NO2 concentrations that were 13.2 parts per billion (ppb) higher than the block groups with the lowest nonwhite share. By 2010, this difference had fallen to 8.9 ppb, suggesting that the greatest reductions occurred in those communities with the highest level of exposure.

But the absolute reduction disappeared when the authors considered relative changes. In 2000, the block groups with the greatest share of nonwhite residents had 2.5 times higher levels of NO2 than the whitest block groups; by 2010, this disparity had actually increased to 2.7-fold.

The authors concluded that “eliminating disparities may require additional policies and interventions that target the underlying causes of environmental injustice.” This is not how we typically approach environmental issues, particularly air pollution.

With Trump in the White House, federal action to address these disparities isn’t in the cards any time soon. But motivated state, regional, and local agencies should be taking action to eliminate them.

More recommended reading today: ATLUrbanist says a new development in central Atlanta scales down the parking but still has too much. And Modern Cities looks at Miami’s Brickell City Centre as a more walkable, urban model for malls.

  • GregKamin

    I backed up my arguments by showing you lots of highways that do not fit your narrative at all. In fact it takes more effort to find an example that supports your view than not.

    Even if you were partly (which you now admit) correct, these were historic decisions, most of which were made 50/60 years ago when the social and political climate was very different.

    While there may have been some racism in some cases way back then, you’re talking about a time when segregation had widespread support. That is hardly the case now so your ideological train left that station long ago.

    And what do you want to do about it anyway? Rebuild the MacArthur Maze in Piedmont or Berkeley because they are more white? See the problem here?

  • tiabgood

    Please compare the pollution in Marin to West Oakland and then please examine how your examples do not compare. I shared stats that go country wide that show a pattern that you are intentionally ignoring.

    Things to do now: Recognize and acknowledge that what has been done in the past is still causing environmental issues to under-served communities, and try to find ways to help those communities now. Affordable and accessible lead abatement programs. HEPA Home Air Purifiers for families that cannot afford them to help mitigate the high asthma issues. Civil engineers look into ways to redirect the air pollution from street level (not sure if this is possible – but I have been out of the Civil Engineering field for over 10 years now).

    Almost every response you
    have had you have intentionally gone to the extreme for summaries of the
    opposite argument. No one is saying reroute all
    the highways through other neighborhoods. These are not helping your arguments.

    Make sure that there is not a bias when building new highways now, by asking “is this really because this is the best way, or is is because we are not caring about this community” as stating “While there may have been some racism in some cases way back then,
    you’re talking about a time when segregation had widespread support.” Makes it sound like across this US this is actually the case, and it is not. We live in a bubble in the Bay Area.

    Something happening now:

    There are other places they can chose to take the right of way, but they are they probably did not consider them, and it may or may not have been a conscience decision. This is so ingrained in our society.

  • GregKamin

    West Oakland has worse pollution than Marin for many reasons, most of which have nothing to do with vehicle emissions. For instance:

    1) Oakland has a lot of industry. Marin does not.

    2) Oakland has an airport and a naval air station. Marin does not.

    3) Oakland is a major port. Marin is not.

    4) The prevailing winds are westerly, meaning that pollution from Marin, SF and the Peninsula gets blown towards the East Bay.

    5) Oakland is hotter and less windy than Marin, causing pollution to linger

    There is quite simply no way you can isolate out one of these factors, but of course that doesn’t deter you when there is a race card that needs to be played.

  • tiabgood

    Wow, you are exhausting and still are ignoring the fact that I have given you an article that gathers national data that shows that this is more often than not correlated with race. And I have to laugh at the thought that West Oakland is hotter than Marin, you do not know much about micro climates do you?

    The fact that you are fighting so hard to ignore racism tells me that you are not willing to look at your own racist tendencies as you are just going to find a way to explain them away.

  • Where I live, the power plants are fossil-fueled in a nearby town next to working-class people of color, so I don’t have to smell the exhaust. During peak use, which is something that can only increase along with convenient mid-day EV-charging, they fire up “peaker plants” that run on even dirtier fossil fuels, right next to working-class people of color. Of course, once EV use increases enough and drivers actually start load-shifting in a serious way, we would see peak use 24 hours a day.

    In my state, we are encouraged to pretend we’re our own grid, rather than part of continent-wide grid based on coal, shale oil, etc. My state has a preponderance of power plants burning natural gas. Of course, that’s obtained through fracking, which pollutes the water of nearby working-class people of color.

    That’s how it is in my state. In other states, middle-class people of color can be hit harder. Somehow the correlation with race is even greater than the correlation with economic class in environmental justice research.

  • Not if the overall number of the cars on the road keep increasing, which is a consequence of trying continue to accommodate cars with our infrastructure rather than replacing them.

  • A comment like yours shows up on every article that tries to examine racial disparities, invariably dismissing findings on some inadequately-explored basis and always using the some variant of the phrase “race-bait” or “race card.” It’s tiresome and says more about the commenter than that which is commented on.

  • The San Francisco story is even worse than that. The Freeway Revolt was actually multiracial, and when it succeeded, a divide-and-conquer alternative replaced the freeway: Fell and Oak, which were residential streets in Black neighborhoods, were made into one-way streets and turned into deadly traffic sewers where the speed limits were ignored for generations.

  • GregKamin

    The fact that you are fighting so hard to promote allegations of racism tells me that you are not willing to look at your own racist tendencies as you are just going to find a way to explain them away.

    See the problem with intrinsic bias?

    There are many explanations for this alleged tendency that do not involve race, but of course you ignore them. Which makes you the racist here.

  • Two Americas

    You are not being honest. The word “racism” never has had any meaning for you and it never will.

    Why would most people of color be living in one undesirable area? Why would the color of as person’s skin determine that? If that is a not strong indicator of racism, then nothing ever could be. That is what you are really trying to say – there never is and never could be racism under any circumstances.

  • tiabgood

    See how you have ignored all actual data I have linked for you to read and gone completely by your own experiences, thoughts, and feelings? And now name calling? Good job, sir. You win by insults.

  • GregKamin

    No, I am simply pointing out that you cannot isolate traffic pollution from all the other sources of pollution in West Oakland.

    And as noted before, any correlation with race is a second or third order derivative effect. You have furnished zero evidence in support of your claim that road planners are racist, and I deem that to be highly unlikely. Frankly it is self-serving ideological nonsense.

  • tiabgood

    I am not sure how I would be serving myself. What do I gain by trying to make places better and more fair for everyone?

  • tiabgood

    And even if race is only a second or third order derivative effect – that would not make it any less racist.

  • GregKamin

    No, because racism requires intent. If it is merely a third order effect and not intended, then it’s not racism.

    In my experience, racists tend to introduce race into every topic regardless of relevance. In that context I’d argue you are the racist here.

  • GregKamin

    I do not accept your premise that anything is “unfair”, so the rest is moot.

  • tiabgood

    Wow. “racism requires intent” No, no it does not. You fundamentally do not understand what racism is. You are being willfully ignorant.

    “In my experience, racists tend to introduce race into every topic regardless of relevance.” Everything you have stated makes it clear you have never experienced racism. Enjoy your charmed life.

  • GregKamin

    100% wrong. You cannot be accidentally racist. It takes conscious thought and effort.

    I never introduce race into a discussion because I am post-racial. Race just isn’t important to me and I don’t see it.

    I feel sorry for those who try and inject race into everything.

  • GregKamin

    The data was cherry-picked and I have demonstrated why those findings are structurally (and probably deliberately( flawed.

  • tiabgood

    “post racial” There is no such thing – yet. That really makes me laugh.

    So does the assumption of me being straight, white, or male. Wrong on all accounts. That was my guess for you as well. So I guess we were both wrong. Though I still assume with your username and your style of communication that you are male.

    And I do not inject racism into everything – again with you jumping to the farthest extremes when a counter point is presented to you. You really should reconsider doing that – as it is not putting you in a good light. In this case, Environmental Racism has been an accepted theory since the early 80s, and is not anything new. And as someone who studied and worked in Civil and Environmental Engineering I have seen many documents over the years that there was no veiling of the racism in the decisions of where to put things like highways, new post offices, and push for more industrial buildings. And these things that were very obvious in the past are still impacting our current communities. And not everyone has decent health insurance, family that supports them, OK education, etc to help them out of their bad situations. But you think there is no fair/unfair so being born into a family that is not supportive/is poor/angry/struggling whatever/ does not matter matter to you as you are somehow beyond it. How very very libertarian of you, every human for themselves. Enjoy an Ayn Rand book recently?

    I still hold onto caring about society as a whole. Which means acknowledging that we should figure out a way to make things fair for our neighbors. Different world vies. I just hope you are not my neighbor.

  • GregKamin

    My points stand:

    West Oakland is more polluted for a whole host of reasons beyond traffic, which you cannot isolate out

    Freeways get built in low-lying flat areas which typically are lower-income. Ditto interchanges in inner cities.

    These decisions were made 50/60 years ago in a very different time, and cannot be changed now for overtly ideological reasons.

    There is zero evidence that traffic planners these days are racist. Many are non-white.

    And yes, I am post racial. I don’t walk into a room and notice race. Sounds like you do. Try not noticing race and then let me know how that feels. It’s liberating.

  • tiabgood

    I have given you examples of what can be done to help areas that have been hurt due to infrastructure that causes pollution. And if you do not think that 3 above ground highways cause enough air and noise pollution on their own without “other reasons,” again you are being willfully ignorant.

    I know I am not going to change your mind – but food to chew on – since there is no such thing as post racial(another way to say that is colorblind):

    Hard not to see race when people (including me) are treated differently because race, and people who say they are “post racial” or “color blind” are trying to erase my experiences. But you go ahead and keep doing what you are doing if it makes you feel better about yourself.

  • GregKamin

    I already outlined why I rejected your alleged “evidence”.

    Not seeing race everywhere requires practice and an open outlook. Try it.

  • tiabgood

    Really, you read through the Nation Article or the Yale Paper? Which are not *my* evidence. You cherry picked through my examples, so I gave you a greater swath of information that was not experience but statistic based, so you would stop that, and yet you still kept focusing your arguments on those.

    Too bad what my outlook is when I am treated differently because of my race. You either pass as white, or are completely oblivious. Either way I am completely done caring about your outlook.

  • GregKamin

    My arguments refute those articles, and you have been unable to counter those refutations.

    You are not treated differently because of your race. You just use that as an excuse for your failures. Be a man and face up to reality. You cannot play a card to evade all your shortcomings.

    Quit being a card-playing loser.

  • tiabgood

    Hahahahaha! My failures! You know nothing about me, and think I have failures. Wow.

  • GregKamin

    I’ve demonstrated why you are wrong. And another reason too – building highways requires land to be purchased, Lower-income areas are typically cheaper to buy, and the taxpayers have not indicated that they want to pay more in taxes just to avoid inconveniencing poorer people.

    It’s got nothing to do with race. Poor whites are affected and successful non-whites are not. You’re just looking for a card to play and an axe to grind.

    Your idea seems to be that we should only build where the demographic is only white. And you try and call me a racist?

  • tiabgood

    I have not called you a racist. I have not suggested we only build in only white area. Must be hard for you to communicate with others in the world if you automatically assume that everyone who disagrees with you must want the extreme opposite of what you believe. And you think I have an axe to grind. Maybe you should look at yourself here. Have a good life.

  • GregKamin

    I will take that as an admission that you cannot carry your points through logically.

  • tiabgood

    Methinks you doth protest too much. Badly summarize what I have said as you have all of my points, it is clearly your way.

  • GregKamin

    On the contrary, I gave detailed explanations why all your asserted points were either false, self-serving, racially-motivated or all three.

  • tiabgood

    Detailed explanations of your own cherry picked data. Telling me that Yale and The Nation cherry picked data without providing nationwide data that refutes this info. No, you did not. You are just trying to justify the system and the fact that you are complacent in in. And I have yet to figure out how stating that I think the government needs to figure out ways to help clean up areas that are overly polluted to help the people there is self-serving. You are just throwing around insults and calling it logic.

  • GregKamin

    I am still waiting for clear proof that road planners were racist, rather than third-order derivative, half-assed claims that they might be.

  • tiabgood
  • tiabgood

    Sorry that I do not have a quick quip for you. You have to actually read. As my background is in Civil Engineering, I have read hundreds of these papers and it took me about 10 of them to be convinced.

  • GregKamin

    OK, so you admit can’t prove what you claimed, and you cannot refute my counter-arguments.

    Did it cross your mind that maybe you only read things that suit your agenda? Anyone can cherry-pick articles they agree with. But if you cannot paraphrase the alleged “proof” then the conclusion has to be that you don’t really understand the issues but want to make it about race anyway, for your own ideological reasons.

  • GregKamin

    Summarize. I’m not going to read articles that you have cherry-picked because you agree with them

  • tiabgood

    You made it clear that you will not read my summaries. And since you did not make any real counter arguments other than “racism does not exist here” and I sent you articles showing you proof that they did, there is nothing for me to refute. And when I gave you a good link of not cherry picked articles (you cna pick through them all you want) you still claim I have been cherry picking. That is not how do your own research works.

    This is how you have been arguing:

    Things in quotes you stated:

    “you believe that the number of false allegations of racism is zero. “ I didn’t say that.

    “Rebuild the MacArthur Maze in Piedmont or Berkeley because they are more white?” Nope, I did not suggest that.
    “I feel sorry for those who try and inject race into everything.” I have not and do not do that. We are talking about 1 instance.

    “I’m guessing you’re a straight white male.” Bad assumption.

    “You just use that as an excuse for your failures. Be a man and face up to reality.” Yeah – I never mentioned any failures, nor gave you excuses. Also, already told you I am not a man. I have never understood “man up” does it mean have no empathy, swallow your feelings, and be a bit of a bully? As that seems to be the route you have taken.

    “Your idea seems to be that we should only build where the demographic is only white. And you try and call me a racist?” Again, I did not suggest this. Nor did I call you a racist.

    Generally, when someone has to make absurd assumptions concerning the arguments an opponent is making, it is because they do not have any strong evidence to the contrary. It is easier to argue against the extremes that were never presented to you than the actual arguments presented. Just saying “they are cherry picking” without giving anything but your anecdotal evidence back, well that is not demonstrative or logical both things you have claimed of your arguments directly and indirectly respectively.

  • tiabgood

    Article (that there are many studies concerning) about how “whitening” names on resumes gets more call backs for the same skills. I am certain most people in HR are not looking at the resumes and saying “oh this is a brown person I am not going to call them back” they are more than likely saying “I know a Mike, I like him” and just not registering Jarmesh’s resume as something positive. This is an example of impact of racism without intent:

    I have seen at least 20 studies done on this over the years. This is an accepted fact at this point.

  • tiabgood

    Summary, there is loads of data showing that communities of color are more impacted by noise and air pollution created by infrastructure. Some is obvious, and some might seem circumstantial but has a pattern. Most is from infrastructure that was put into place in the past, but in some communities it is still happening.

    We need to support ways to mitigate(with engineering) future damage and help repair damage that has already been done.


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