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Life cycle assessment in support of sustainable transportation

Matthew J Eckelman examines decision support for transport planning.

In our rapidly urbanizing world, sustainable transportation presents a major challenge. Transportation decisions have considerable direct impacts on urban society, both positive and negative, for example through changes in transit times and economic productivity, urban connectivity, tailpipe emissions and attendant air quality concerns, traffic accidents, and noise pollution. Much research has been dedicated to quantifying these direct impacts for various transportation modes. Transportation planning decisions also result in a variety of indirect environmental and human health impacts, a portion of which can accrue outside of the transit service area and so outside of the local decision-making process. Integrated modeling of direct and indirect impacts over the life cycle of different transportation modes provides decision support that is more comprehensive and less prone to triggering unintended consequences than a sole focus on direct tailpipe emissions.

The recent work of Chester et al (2013) in this journal makes important contributions to this research by examining the environmental implications of introducing bus rapid transit and light rail in Los Angeles using life cycle assessment (LCA). Transport in the LA region is dominated by automobile trips, and the authors show that potential shifts to either bus or train modes would reduce energy use and emissions of criteria air pollutants, on an average passenger mile travelled basis. This work compares not just the use of each vehicle, but also upstream impacts from its manufacturing and maintenance, as well as the construction and maintenance of the entire infrastructure required for each mode. Previous work by the lead author (Chester and Horvath 2009), has shown that these non-operational sources and largely non-local can dominate life cycle impacts from transportation, again on an average (or attributional) basis, for example increasing rail-related GHG emissions by >150% over just operational emissions.
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