Transportation systems also have environmental externalities, in addition to their substantial socioeconomic benefits. Transportation systems contribute to both deteriorating air quality and a changing climate through emissions from burning fossil fuels.
Additionally, transportation contributes to air pollution, water pollution, and ecosystem disruption through a variety of direct and indirect interactions. These externalities are anticipated to increase as transportation continues to expand and shifts more and more to high-speed modes.
Transportation-related activities support rising passenger and freight mobility demands, particularly in urban areas. However, the effects of transportation activities have increased levels of motorization and congestion. As a result, the transportation industry is becoming more and more connected to environmental issues.
Table of Contents
Impacts of Transportation on the Environment
The following are the impacts of transportation on the environment:
1. Climate Change
The greenhouse effect, a naturally occurring mechanism that includes partially holding heat in the earth’s atmosphere, is a key factor in regulating the global climate.
Gases including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and halocarbons, which collect in the atmosphere for long enough to establish a homogeneous composition globally, are responsible for achieving this.
Therefore, their concentration is the same everywhere. As a result of the atmospheric accumulation of gases from all the emission sources, it is implied that a particular region will be affected.
Since the industrial revolution, and notably over the past 25 years, there has been a significant rise in the number of conventional greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.
Differences in the atmospheric lifetime (or residence time), which is the amount of time greenhouse gases spend in the atmosphere before decomposing or being absorbed by biological or chemical processes, further complicate the relative impacts of these gases.
It can be anywhere between 5 and 200 years for CO2, 12 years or so for methane, and 114 years or so for NO2. It takes at least 45 years for halocarbons like chlorofluorocarbons to decompose.
Several million tons of greenhouse gases are emitted into the atmosphere each year as a result of the transportation sector’s operations, making up between 25 and 30 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.
There is ongoing discussion over how much these emissions contribute to climate change, but this discussion focuses more on the size of these consequences than on their actual nature.
Some gases, in particular nitrogen oxide, also contribute to the destruction of the ozone (O3) layer in the stratosphere, which shields the surface of the earth from ultraviolet light.
Along with its emissions, the growth in air traffic has also led to an increase in contrails, which are largely ice crystals created from condensation around aircraft flying at high altitudes.
In a contradictory way, they can influence climate change since they can both reflect and retain solar energy while also trapping heat.
Transportation not only contributes to climate change but is also impacted by it, especially in terms of operations (e.g., increased flooding owing to rising sea levels) and infrastructure (more weather disruptions).
2. Air Quality
Highway vehicles, marine engines, trains, and aircraft all emit gases and particulate matter that contribute to pollution. They harm human health and have an impact on air quality.
Lead (Pb), carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx), silicon tetrafluoride (SF6), benzene, volatile components (BTX), heavy metals (zinc, chromium, copper, and cadmium), and particulate matter are among the most prevalent (ash, dust).
Since lead was no longer allowed to be used as an anti-knock ingredient in gasoline starting in the 1980s, lead emissions have significantly decreased.
Tetraethyl lead, which is used as a fuel additive, was banned primarily because it was thought to have neurotoxic effects on humans and was bad for catalytic converters.
Cancer, cardiovascular, respiratory, and neurological illnesses are linked to toxic air pollution. When inhaled, carbon monoxide (CO), which can be exceedingly dangerous and even fatal at certain amounts, decreases the amount of oxygen that is available to the circulatory system.
Transportation-related nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions impact the respiratory immune defense system, impair lung function, and raise the likelihood of respiratory issues.
Acid rain is produced when different acidic chemicals, which are formed by the atmospheric emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), combine with cloud water.
Acid precipitation damages the built environment lowers crop yields in agriculture and weakens forests.
When chemicals such as carbon monoxide, ozone, hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, water, particulates, and other pollutants combine, they generate smog, which is a mixture of solid and liquid fog and smoke particles.
The quality of life and the allure of tourist destinations are negatively impacted by the reduction in visibility brought on by smog. Air quality is impacted by particulate emissions, which include dust, from both exhaust and non-exhaust sources such as vehicles and road abrasion.
Particulate matter’s physical and chemical characteristics are linked to health hazards, including breathing difficulties, skin rashes, eye inflammations, blood clotting, and different allergies.
Local physical and meteorological factors frequently worsen pollution, resulting in times of high smog concentration and public measures to reduce it, such as temporarily banning automobile use.
In modern economies, air quality issues have received thorough attention, and emissions of a wide spectrum of pollutants have significantly decreased.
Rapid motorization in developing economies has shifted the focus to large cities in China and India as those most affected by the degradation in air quality.
3. Noise Pollution
Noise is the term used to describe the overall impact of erratic and chaotic sounds on both human and animal life. Noise is essentially an annoying sound. A scale from 1 to 120 decibels (dB) is used to indicate the acoustic measurement of noise intensity.
Long-term exposure to noise levels exceeding 75 decibels seriously impairs hearing and hurts people’s physical and mental health.
The risk of cardiovascular diseases rises as a result of the noise generated by the operation of ports, airports, and railyards, as well as by moving transport vehicles.
Ambient noise, which is frequently a byproduct of road traffic in metropolitan areas and is the total result of all the noise produced by automobiles (ranging from 45 to 65 dB), lowers property values and quality of life.
Since buyers are less inclined to make offers on properties in locations with high noise levels, falling land values next to acute noise sources like airports are frequently observed.
Many noise regulations require noise mitigation, such as sound walls and other soundproofing methods, if noise levels exceed certain thresholds.
4. Water Quality
Water quality and hydrological conditions are impacted by transportation operations. Hydrographic systems can become contaminated by fuel, chemicals, and other hazardous particles that are dumped from operating ports, airport terminals, or vehicles, trucks, and trains.
Marine transport emissions are the most significant portion of the transportation sector’s impact on water quality due to the rise in demand for maritime ships.
Dredging, garbage, ballast waters, and oil spills are the main causes of marine transport activities’ negative effects on water quality. By removing sediments from a body of water’s bottom, dredging deepens harbor channels.
To develop and maintain the necessary water depth for maritime operations and port accessibility, dredging is required. The maritime ecology is negatively impacted by dredging activities on two different levels.
By generating turbidity, they alter the hydrology, which can have an impact on marine biological diversity. Sites for disposing of spoils and decontamination methods are needed since dredging raises contaminated sediments and water.
Waste produced by ship operations at sea or in ports harms the environment because it can include a lot of bacteria that are dangerous to both human health and marine ecosystems when released into the ocean.
Additionally, certain waste products comprising plastic and metals are difficult to biodegrade. They can linger on the water’s surface for a very long time, providing a serious obstacle to berthing operations as well as marine navigation in inland and open waters.
To regulate a ship’s stability and draft, as well as to alter its center of gravity by the cargo it is carrying and the variation in its weight distribution, ballast waters are necessary.
A region’s ballast waters may contain invasive aquatic organisms that, when released in another region, could flourish in a different marine environment and disturb the ecosystem there.
Nearshore ecosystems, particularly those in coastal lagoons and inlets, have seen substantial modifications as a result of invasive species. One of the most serious issues with pollution from maritime transport activities is the release of major oil spills from oil cargo vessel accidents.
5. Soil Quality
Soil erosion and soil pollution are two issues that the environmental effects of traffic on soil quality are particularly concerning. Ports and other coastal transportation hubs have a big impact on soil erosion.
The size and scope of wave movements are changing as a result of shipping activity, which causes damage in narrow channels like river banks. A significant amount of agricultural land has been lost as a result of highway building or lowering surface grades for port and airport developments.
The transport sector’s usage of harmful products can lead to soil contamination. Motor vehicle fuel and oil spills wash onto the roadway and seep into the ground.
Chemicals that are used to preserve wooden railroad ties may seep into the ground. Areas around railroads, ports, and airports have been discovered to contain hazardous substances including heavy metals.
6. Land Consumption and Landscape Damage
Direct exploitation of land is necessary for the supply of land-based transportation. Large areas are effectively divided into smaller ones as long strips of land are eaten (severance).
The new construction may displace existing land uses like forestry, agriculture, housing, and nature reserves, making the areas nearby unsuitable for a variety of activities.
The latter is valid, even when there is no direct land consumption, for pipelines carrying flammable materials (such as pressurized gas) when a corridor of land along the route must be kept undeveloped for safety reasons.
Ironically, severance may severely hinder the mobility of people and animals between once-connected places, having an impact on both the ecosystems’ ability to function and the quality of community life.
Due to their size, airports in particular have severance impacts on the area where they are located.
Even if the danger of pedestrian crossings grows on a level with rising traffic density and speed, some severe effects, most notably those of non-motorway-type roads, are only partially present.
In response to this issue, traffic engineers have added more light-controlled crossings.
Road tunnels or viaducts can be used to lessen severance, particularly in metropolitan locations, although both of these alternatives are expensive and the latter has a considerable visual impact.
Land consumption is not merely a direct result of transportation growth; it can also happen indirectly because the land is used to collect the building materials’ primary raw material, aggregate.
In the UK, roughly 90 million metric tons of aggregate are used annually in the building and maintenance of roads, with an average of 76,000 metric tons of aggregate used per kilometer of road lane (Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, 1994).
A deterioration in the visual amenity or aesthetic appeal of the landscape may be a major effect of transportation-related land loss and land use change.
When it comes to the development of roads, railroads, and inland waterways, the visual impact may be primarily linear or nodal, depending on the size of the huge terminal installations at airports and seaports.
Due in part to the challenges of evaluating the quality of the existing landscape, information on the extent of landscape degradation and the loss of visual amenities associated with transportation is not readily available.
However, the negative effects of landscape alteration are likely to be considerably more pronounced in places with great aesthetic value, such as national parks and mountain passes, or in places where a flat terrain permits visual intrusion across a large region.
7. Ecological Degradation
One of the most sensitive aspects of the tension between transportation development and environmental quality is the degradation of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, as measured by indicators like decreased habitat/species diversity, primary productivity, or the area extent of ecologically valuable plant and animal communities.
Another immediate effect of land-based transportation development is severance. Natural or semi-natural ecosystems may be physically divided, and the resulting reduction in size may endanger the survival and/or biodiversity of the smaller remains by impeding animal and plant species from moving across transport lines.
Similar to the loss of individual animals due to vehicle collisions, many readers will be all too aware of this direct effect of road transportation.
According to research published in a recent report by Scottish Natural Heritage (1994), at least 3,000 barn owls are killed each year in road accidents in Scotland, resulting in a yearly loss of breeding amphibians of 20–40%.
However, many negative consequences on wildlife, such as those linked to air, water, and noise pollution, may also be the result of indirect or secondary effects of transport development (described below).
One could cite the ecological damage brought on by catastrophic oil leaks from damaged tanks, which are widely reported on a global scale, or the contamination of coastal habitats as examples of water pollution.
In a nutshell, transportation networks have an impact on the environment. The impact of the many forms of transportation has been explored.
From what we have seen in the article above, it’s critical to adopt sustainable transportation to advance steps toward climate sustainability. I mean, you would like your children to have a world where they can live and move about freely. Stop the use of fossil fuel energy, and migrate to alternative and environmentally friendly options.
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A passion-driven environmentalist by heart. Lead content writer at EnvironmentGo.
I strive to educate the public about the environment and its problems.
It has always been about nature, we ought to protect not destroy.