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Life cycle assessment in support of sustainable transportation

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2013 Environ. Res. Lett. 8 021004
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Environ. Res. Lett. 8 (2013) 021004 (3pp)



Life cycle assessment in support of

sustainable transportation
Matthew J Eckelman
Department of Civil and
Environmental Engineering,
Northeastern University, USA

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
While average results are valuable in comparing transport modes generally,
they are less representative of local planning decisions, where the focus is on
understanding the consequences of new infrastructure and how it might affect
traffic, community impacts, and environmental aspects going forward. Chester
et al (2013) also present their results using consequential LCA, which provides
more detailed insights about the marginal effects of the specific rapid bus and
light rail lines under study. The trade-offs between the additional resources
required to install the public transit infrastructure (the resource debt) and the
environmental advantages during the operation of these modes can be considered
explicitly in terms of environmental impact payback periods, which vary with the
type of environmental impact being considered. For example, bus rapid transit
incurs a relatively small carbon debt associated with the GHG emissions of
manufacturing new buses and installing transit infrastructure and pays this debt
off almost immediately, while it takes half a century for the light rail line to pay

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Environ. Res. Lett. 8 (2013) 021004


off the smog debt of its required infrastructure. This payback period approach,
ubiquitous in life cycle costing, has been useful for communicating the magnitude
of unintended environmental consequences from other resource and land
management decisions, e.g., the release of soil carbon from land conversion to
bioenergy crops (Fargione et al 2008), and will likely grow in prevalence as
consequential LCA is used for decision support.
The locations of projected emissions is just as important to decision-making as
their magnitudes, as policy-making bodies seek to understand effects in their
jurisdictions; however, life cycle impact assessment methods typically aggregate
results by impact category rather than by source or sink location. Chester et al
(2013) address this issue by providing both local (within Los Angeles) and total
emissions results, with accompanying local-only payback periods. Much more
challenging is the geographic mapping of impacts that these emissions will cause,
given the many point and mobile sources of air pollutants over the entire
transportation life cycle. Integration of LCA with high-resolution data sets is an
active area of model development (Mutel and Hellweg 2009) and will provide
site- and population-specific information for impacts ranging from water quality
to biodiversity to human respiratory health.
Another complex challenge in modeling environmental impacts of
transportation (and cities in general) is the long run, interdependent relationship
between transportation technologies and urban form. LCA modeling has tended
to assume a fixed pattern of settlements and demand for mobility and then
examined changes to a particular technology or practice within the transportation
system, such as electric or hybrid vehicles or improved pavement materials. New
transit options or other travel demand management strategies might induce mode
switching or reduced trips, but the overall pattern of where people live and work
is generally assumed in these models to be constant in the short run. In contrast,
the automobile has been influencing land-use patterns for a century, and it is the
resulting geographic structure that determines the baseline need for
transportation, and thus drives the use of material and energy resources used in
transportation systems (Kunstler 1994).
We have seen that cities with high population densities tend to have lower
tailpipe emissions from transportation (Kennedy et al 2009). Recent studies have
modeled how changes in urban land-use or zoning changes the geographic
structure of transportation demand and then used LCA to determine the
environmental benefits of such policies. For example, Mashayekh et al (2012)
summarized travel demand reductions projected from several studies of compact,
smart growth, and brownfield in-fill development strategies to find benefits
ranging up to 75% reductions in life cycle GHG and air pollutant emissions. A
related study in Toronto on life cycle energy use and GHG emissions for highand low-density development strategies found a 60% difference in GHG
emissions, largely due to transportation (Norman et al 2006). System dynamics
and agent-based models may complement LCA in capturing long-term effects of
transportation strategies as they are inherently dynamic (Stepp et al 2009), and
can internalize spatially resolved decisions about where to settle and work
(Waddell 2002).
Transportation planning decisions have both direct and indirect, spatially
distributed, often long-term effects on our health and our environment. The
accompanying work by Chester et al (2013) provides a well-documented case
study that highlights the potential of LCA as a rich source of decision support.
Chester M, Pincetl S, Elizabeth Z, Eisenstein W and Matute J 2013 Infrastructure and automobile
shifts: positioning transit to reduce life-cycle environmental impacts for urban sustainability
goals Environ. Res. Lett. 8 015041

Environ. Res. Lett. 8 (2013) 021004


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