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Planning & Environment Linkages Implementation Resources

Emerging Issues In PEL

Note: This information was archived in April 2009. For the current information, see

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Planning and the environment are intricately connected. As new issues emerge in either planning or the environment, new linkages should be investigated. Some examples of emerging issues that have potential linkages include how best to address freight movement within the planning process, the heightened attention paid to climate change, and the renewed emphasis paid to non-motorized transportation strategies.

Freight in the Planning Process

Freight transportation has increasingly emerged as an important part of the planning process, especially as our economy has become tied to the global market. State DOTs and MPOs became responsible for making sure that freight movement is considered in the planning process when the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act was enacted in 1991. Traditionally few agencies identified freight-specific projects that could be programmed, developed, and implemented. Moreover, in the past two decades, the global freight market has grown rapidly and changed. Many regions around the country have become increasingly reliant on freight transport as a mean to their economic development.

Likewise, many of these regions have increasingly recognized the impact that freight transport has on the overall health and efficiency of the transportation system. Metropolitan areas (especially ports), with their air cargo airports, intermodal freight yards, large trucking terminals, and shipyards, are especially affected by freight movement issues.6 Many states and MPOs have begun to develop freight planning programs.

Nonetheless, much of freight planning has been outside of a typical long-range planning process. Goods movement via rail, air, and marine modes has been driven largely by the private sector, although some regions have taken a more active approach by building statewide or metropolitan pictures of freight movement through the development of stand alone, integrated, multimodal freight plans. Still others have begun to develop analytical tools or freight data collection programs to develop freight performance measures or to help guide a broad freight policy and statewide/ regional transportation investment decisions.7

Logical linkages to this work include highlighting the environmental benefits associated with integrating freight in the planning process. Investments made in freight transportation could have beneficial impacts on the environment when freight and environmental considerations are integrated throughout the planning, programming, and project development processes. For instance, identifying environmental considerations early could help in the locating of key freight corridors and facilities. In addition, since freight-related outreach strategies differ from traditional public outreach techniques, transportation planners could encounter different stakeholders and perspectives, adding value to separate planning efforts. Finally, integrating freight within the planning process could ensure consistency with state implementation plans and air quality conformity as freight is a major contributor of air pollutants. In short, linking freight with planning and the environment could have far-flung impacts to mobility, economic competitiveness, and general quality of life.

Climate Change

Over the last decade, climate change has received increased attention by the media and in scientific, political, and economic circles worldwide. Climate change is a change in the average weather of the Earth that can be measured by wind patterns, storms, precipitation, and temperature. Human influence, including our energy production and certain industrial and agricultural practices, is likely a significant contributor to this change-the consequences of which are potentially catastrophic. Climate change is perhaps the greatest environmental challenge facing us today.

Transportation agencies around the country have begun integrating climate change with their planning processes. They have increasingly begun to analyze mitigation strategies to reduce emissions, and evaluate environmental impacts associated with climate change that may occur because of transportation projects. Unlike other linkages between planning and NEPA though, this connection has been made without much guidance or supporting PEL documentation.

Transportation agencies have had to elevate climate change as an issue on their own. To date, there is no specific federal mandate to consider climate change in transportation planning. There is no formal regulatory guidance available at either the state or federal level on addressing climate change impact in the NEPA process. Although the U.S. Supreme Court recently held that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, the EPA has yet to develop any regulations.8 Essentially, there are few documented ways to create Planning and Environment Linkages when it comes to climate change; thus, agencies have resorted to what is reasonable. This either has meant addressing the issue in stand alone sections on climate change or in other sections (e.g., air quality analysis, cumulative impacts discussion, etc.).

Agencies that have addressed global climate change have taken several strategies, including emphasizing linkages made in the following approaches:

Non-Motorized Transportation

Considering non-motorized transportation strategies in the planning process has also increased in importance over the last several years. Non-motorized transportation is primarily walking, whether on foot or by wheelchair, and bicycling. Strategies include improving sidewalks, crosswalks, paths, and bike lanes, as well as applying forms of universal design or traffic calming measures. Strategies are usually implemented by local governments with funding provided by regional or state agencies. Increased attention is partly due to environmental and public health concerns.

On the environmental front, non-motorized strategies in planning have become more attractive as a means to meet emissions standards under the federal Clear Air Act. People in walkable neighborhoods drive less-reducing traffic congestion and lowering vehicle miles traveled. Plus, neighborhood walkability is linked to fewer per capita air pollutants and greenhouse gases.9

A secondary benefit is improved public health. For roughly 20 years now, planners have examined the relation between the built environment and travel choices made by the public, including the choice to walk or cycle instead of drive.10 More recently, researchers have begun to look at these choices especially as they relate to the issue of public health.

Declining physical activity is linked to worsening health. Recent studies show a clear association between the type of place people live and their activity levels, weight, and health.11 Where driving is convenient and non-motorized transportation options few, unhealthy characteristics in the form of obesity rates and hypertension are observed.12 Thus, researchers have increasingly been looking at the effect that transportation facilities and available transportation options have on public health trends.13

In response to public health concerns, transportation agencies have acted. For example, at the request of several state DOTs, the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration convened a roundtable several years ago on "Integrating Health and Physical Activity Goals into Transportation Planning." FHWA manages two programs, SAFETEA-LU Sections 1404 and 1807 (Safe Routes to School and the Non-Motorized Transportation Pilot Program, respectively). Moreover, some state DOTs now include health concerns in their long-range planning.

Local jurisdictions have been more aggressive. Cities such as Davis, California and Portland, Oregon have prioritized non-motorized options in its transportation planning. Davis has more bikes than cars, and was the first community in the U.S. to earn platinum status on Bicycle Friendly Community's list of top cities.14 Portland's Create-a-Commuter program is the first project in the U.S. that provides low-income adults with commuter bicycles. In addition, Seattle, Washington is experimenting with vehicle-free zones, temporarily closing city streets to cars, motorcycles, and scooters, but keeping them open to pedestrians and cyclists.

For PEL, the most logical place to connect is at the statewide planning level-in solutions screening for programming and in analyzing alternatives in project development. Linkages could be made in system plans or long-range planning documents, visions, and policies. Potential linkages can also occur at the STIP, how projects are selected for the STIP, and in the project alternatives analysis and documentation process. Linkages may focus on the interaction between transportation and land use patterns on habitat connectivity, water quality, and other environmental impacts, as well as impacts on human health associated with different levels of physical activity associated with different types of development and transportation patterns.

6 The Transportation Planning Process: Key Issues. The Transportation Planning Capacity Building Program. Federal Highway Administration, Federal Transit Administration. Updated September 2007.

7 Freight Planning Capacity Building workshop. U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration.

8 In April 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 1438 (2007), that the EPA must take action under the Clean Air Act regarding greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles and that states have standing to sue if the EPA does not take action. Most greenhouse gases are naturally occurring, including water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide.

9 Goldberg, David et. al. New Data for a New Era: A Summary of the SMARTRAQ Findings. January 2007.

10 Ewing, Reid. Building environment to promote health. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. January 20, 2003.

11 Ewing, Reid and McCann, Barbara A. Measuring the Health Effects of Sprawl. Smart Growth America Surface Transportation Policy Project. September 2003.

12 Ibid.

13 Among the problems cited by public health advocates, trends have been worsening in terms of obesity rates, cases of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression and anxiety, as well as poorer development and maintenance of bones and muscles, especially among children.

14 League of American Bicyclists.

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