NORA Transportation Infrastructure

By Allison Beining, August 2013



Everyone needs to get to places, and transportation infrastructure is supposed to facilitate that. The infrastructure includes roads for motor vehicles, bicycles and other human-powered vehicles, and for horse or ox-drawn carriages and carts, paths and sidewalks for walking, railway lines for trains, ports for ships, and airports for airplanes and helicopters. These various modes of movement can conflict with each other; for example, highways can be barriers for people who need to get around by walking or by bike. In addition, about 20% of the greenhouse gas emissions that affect our atmosphere come from cars and planes because we rely on them heavily as a means of transportation.  In order to have greater abundance for all, we need to find solution that cut down the release of greenhouse gases while allowing people to get around. This means that transportation industries need to produce more efficient means of transportation while governments build the infrastructure and pass policies that support those modes of transportation and mobility that are most environmentally friendly. Where it is more pleasant, efficient and easy to walk, cycle, or use public transport than to use a car, many more people use those options. Also, as commuters, we need to know about the different transportation options we have and what we can do to help our environment.

Context Within NORA

Relationships to Needs

All living things need air to breathe.  If that air is polluted with toxins, living organisms will be unhealthy and die early. In order to lessen the amount of pollutants in the air, we need cut back on the use of fossil fuels, especially gasoline, in transportation.

Pollutants from the air can pollute the water and thereby the food that is being grown, with impacts on our health. Traffic accidents can also impact our health (to the point of death), though on the other hand, transportation gives people the mobility to go and get the things they need in order to stay healthy and live abundant lives. Transportation of goods also allows access to needed goods and services, in order to fulfill needs for such things as clothing and shelter. It is thus vital to design transportation systems that minimize negative impacts while providing needed services.

People learn every day, whether as a child going to school or adults going to work, or people of all ages engaged in a myriad of daily activities. Being able to travel safely to gain knowledge is important in gaining opportunities to learn.

In order for people to have meaningful livelihoods they need to have access to the places where they can engage in such work, which often requires transportation.

Relationships to Resources

Air and atmosphere: The burning of gasoline for transportation purposes releases carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) as well as nitrous oxides and particulates; nitrous oxides react with sunlight to generate ozone. These are all forms of air pollution, affecting on the atmosphere.  Carbon dioxide can raise the temperature which would raise the sea level and melt many ice caps. It could also have an effect on the weather and rain patterns.

Water:  Pollutants can move from water to air and vice versa.  In order to have clean water you need clean air.  All living organisms need water to survive and if it is polluted then it can lead to problems for life forms.

Living things:  All life forms rely on air and water to survive.  Pollutants from transportation such as nitrous oxides and particulates are dangerous because they contaminate these two important resources.  Life forms also are put into great danger due to the roads and interstates that we use as a means of travel.  Every year there are about a million cases of road kill in the United States alone. We are also cutting into the animals’ homes and habitats, which alter the habitats and increase the amount of species isolation.

Minerals:  Many mineral resources are used in order to build and operate transportation infrastructure around the world.  These include the minerals that go into making asphalt for roads, cars, planes and any other mode of transportation that people might be using.  We need to make sure that these minerals are used efficiently and that they are safe for the environment and living things they come into contact with.

Relationships to Organizational Forms

The organizational forms of the community solidarity cluster depend on mutual aid within a community.  People help each other because they have a shared identity. Different means of transportation make this possible so that individuals in the community are able to reach one another and be in contact.

Production and distribution of goods or services for sale to customers is important in the individual sales cluster. In order to distribute good and services to customers, different modes of transportation will be used.  Also, people using the services get there by some form of transportation. Transportation equipment, such as cars, are often sold through individual sales.

In order for a committed sales or service cluster to remain successful they need to be able to have a continuing relationship between the service provider and customers/users/members.  To keep this relationship, travel is used extensively, whether it is from customer to provider or vice versa. The transportation infrastructure itself is typically built and maintained on the basis of long-term contracts, that fit into this cluster of organizational forms.

Currencies circulate throughout the globe in the context of markets. Transportation infrastructure is needed to get the goods from one place to the next and move around the world. It is also paid for through currencies.

We share in the use of transportation infrastructure, and careful shared use is important to keep it in good shape for a long time.

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Understanding current patterns of abundance and scarcity

Transportation infrastructure includes the infrastructure for local trips around a town or city or a metropolitan area, as well as for long-distance trips between cities, or from one country or continent to another. Each type of infrastructure facilitates certain kinds of mobility, and makes others more difficult. If the infrastructure makes environmentally friendly choices difficult or impossible, or makes life difficult for the poor, it creates scarcity either  in the form of environmental impacts or of social inequality.

At the local level, transportation infrastructure geared almost exclusively to cars, with wide-multi-lane roads, narrow sidewalks (or none at all), and few pedestrian crossings makes even short trips by foot or bicycle both hazardous and extremely unpleasant. The large area devoted to the roads and parking lots pushes shops and houses further apart, making trip distances longer. The reduced urban density makes it more difficult to run efficient public transportation services. This means that everyone who can afford it buys a car (and even many who can’t still buy a car and go into debt), leading to increased environmental impacts and more demand for more roads. The options for those who cannot afford to buy a car are greatly curtailed – as are the choices for people who cannot drive because they are too young, too old, or otherwise handicapped.

The predominant modes of transport between cities are transport by private car or bus on highways, by train on rails, by airplane from airports, and by ships from ports. Ships tend to have the lowest energy requirements for goods transport, though they are also the slowest and are therefore used primarily for transport of bulk commodities. If trains are well-used, they are the high-speed mode with the least environmental impacts in terms of energy use and space requirements. Potentially, electrified trains can be converted to renewable sources of energy. Thus, long-distance transport systems that rely only on highways and air transport have greater environmental impacts than those that include train transport and shipping as important parts of the mix. A wider set of options also allows more choices of how to move around; for example, to drive a car from one city to another if that is convenient, or to use a train and read or chat along the way if one prefers that option. Environmentally sensitive transportation policy should thus make sure that the least environmentally damaging options such as train travel are as attractive as possible for the people.

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Transportation infrastructures across the world

Urban and local transportation infrastructure

Cities that have a significant history before the advent of the automobile usually show clear evidence of this in their street patterns, with the pre-automobile portions of the city having relatively narrow streets that do not follow a grid pattern but evolved organically. If they are reasonably well preserved, such historic centers tend to attract the most tourists, because each has its own unique character depending on local culture, regionally available building materials, topography and climate. Such centers tend to be highly walking-oriented, and support a high density of multiple uses, so that many destinations are within walking distance.

Parts of cities that evolved in the mid-to-late twentieth century tend to be more automobile-oriented, with varying degrees of recognition of the importance of walking, cycling, train and bus transport. In some cases, for example many Western-European countries, intense automobile-oriented expansion of transportation infrastructure was followed by some rethinking from the 1970s onward, to ensure that people using other modes of transport are safe and comfortable. Such a trend is beginning to take shape in the United States as well, even while many cities there, and elsewhere in the world, are continuing to focus mainly on car transport.

Among the modes of transport promoted by such policies, cycling plays a major role. It is a popular form of transportation across the globe, since it is cheap, effective (often as fast or faster than car transport in congested cities), and requires minimal parking space.  In Europe, cycling is used as the main mode of transportation 20%-40% of the time in trips that are 5 km or less.  Cycling is extremely abundant and efficient because it does not harm the environment.  It is also healthy and a good method of exercise for people.  In North America, cycling is not as popular, but it is beginning to gain some popularity with more complete streets designs being used.  Complete streets are the traditional pattern in most of Europe and that is why cycling is so popular; streets redesigned along similar principles are usually referred to as “traffic calming.”  This is a concept that the United States is trying to adopt.  In 2008 the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program (NTPP) began making revisions and improvements in transportation in the U.S.  Their goal is to improve bicycling and walking networks to increase the rates of walking and bicycling in cities.  After three years of studying they found that there are many benefits to walking and cycling which include public health and safety benefits and energy efficiency.  Many people who were walking and cycling were also using public transit more frequently.  Eventually, the NTPP wants to connect cycling and walking to public transit because it would be so efficient and healthy for the environment.

Public transportation plays a crucial role in urban transportation in order to move large numbers of people over substantial distances, without requiring the exertion of cycling. Among the major forms of urban transport, it is the most space efficient, since it requires very little parking space (and most of that parking can be located at the urban periphery). To keep public transportation competitive with private car transport, it is vitally important that it be faster than movement by car, that service be frequent, and that vehicles be well-maintained. These objectives can often be achieved by rail-based systems, because the trains are not slowed down by car traffic (especially in the case of underground systems). However, urban rail systems tend to be expensive to build, which hampers their adoption. Bus-based systems can be made competitive in terms of speed if there are dedicated lanes for buses (otherwise, buses are necessarily slower than cars because they have to stop frequently to load and unload passengers). The city of Curitiba in Brazil pioneered what is now called Bus Rapid Transit, by implementing a system that devotes not only individual lanes, but also some entire streets to bus traffic alone.

To achieve best results of making many different transportation options available and realistic to use, it is important to align urban planning as a whole with transportation policy. For example, mixed-use developments that mix residential buildings with commercial development (e.g., corner groceries and retail stores, restaurants etc.), schools, offices and self-employment allow people to reach many of their destinations within walking distance. Transport oriented development (TOD) allows higher building densities for both residential and retail purposes near major public transportation stations, to ensure that there is a large number of people who can conveniently use the public transport.

Skillful integration of different policies adapted to the locality can allow people to have wide choices as to the transportation options they wish to use. This tends to mean that people will use cars less frequently, both because that is ultimately the cheapest mode of transport, and because other options are more convenient. This reduces pollution and accidents, while also increasing the liveliness of the city.

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Long-distance transportation infrastructure

As mentioned above, the main forms of long-distance transport consist of highways, railways, ships, and airplanes. A relocalization of goods production would help reduce total transport demand, especially if energy costs rise and make it economically more efficient to produce many things locally. All forms of long-distance transport have environmental impacts, so simply promoting the least environmentally damaging options while doing nothing to reduce overall transport demand is not likely to be environmentally sustainable. However, considering that air travel has recently been the most rapidly growing mode of transport, with the most severe impacts on climate change, it is critical to find effective ways to reduce air travel demand. In this respect, expansion of high-capacity rail systems plays a major role. These can be competitive with air transport where the distance is not too large, because they offer the advantage of transportation directly from city center to city center, and involve far less time in security (usually not required) and boarding and unboarding.

High-speed rails have become extremely popular in countries across the world. For decades they have swiftly spread across Europe and Asia, and are beginning to replace the use of regular railroad/train travel for intercity travel in Europe.  Many people choose high speed trains because they offer relatively quick travel free of hassles, which has also favored the growth of tourism. The European network crosses international borders, joining together France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, and (via the Chunnel) the United Kingdom, coordinated by the Railteam that emerged in 2007.  Europe is currently investing in building tunnels and bridges in order to further develop and improve these rail systems.  Asia also has several high-speed rail systems in place, in China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Japan’s Shinkansen high-speed rail system has been in place since 1964 and still continues to be one of the fastest and highest volume high-speed rail systems in the world.  In 2012 China completed the longest high-speed rail system in the world.

There are many positives and negatives to this development. Costs for travel are greater than just a regular train fare would be and could be unpopular with people who are looking for cheap travel, especially if there is competition with cheap (and subsidized) air travel. Building the high-speed rail has also caused considerable debt to China, amounting to 640 billion USD. In Europe, partial privatization of the railways has led to very mixed results (especially in the UK) and has tended to drive up costs for passengers. On the positive side, it has sped up travel immensely.  A trip that would have previously been 21 hours long is now only 8 hours. Once these rails were built in Europe and Eastern Asia they quickly gained popularity and more were built and are continuing to be built today.

The United States has had national proposals for a high-speed rail system to be built, but they were vetoed by the House and the Senate.  As of right now, California is the only state that has plans to build a high-speed rail system and they are still in the planning stages of the development.

High-speed rails promise the advantage of being three times more energy-efficient than cars and six times more efficient than airplanes. Since they run on electricity, they can potentially be run by electric power from renewable sources, though at present they are mostly run on power from coal or nuclear power. They do however have environmental impact, for example by contributing to habitat fragmentation. A comprehensive transport strategy must therefore rely on a mix of methods to achieve its goals.

*Note: a section on the ownership and management of rails systems is needed here, noting different options of public, private, or mixed ownership models.

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Transportation infrastructure in the United States

The United States is known as a country highly reliant on automobiles both for local and long-distance transport, and is responsible for helping to popularize this mode of transportation around the world. Cars are closely identified with the “American way of life.” However, a look at the history of transportation in the US shows that even here, people did not automatically take to transforming their cities and transportation systems for the sake of movement by cars on highways; while a look at the contemporary situation shows that many people are interested in reducing their reliance on cars. If there is a potential to reduce reliance on cars in this country, then such potential exists everywhere in the world.

Massive construction of roads to promote the construction of houses on the urban periphery was a strategy chosen to help get the United States out of the Great Depression (see Gonzalez reference listed below). After World War II, this was followed by the construction of the highway and interstate system. In 1956 Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 which financed the interstate and highway system connecting major cities across the country.  Land during this time period was cheap and people began moving a couple miles out of the city; the suburban lifestyle was heavily advertised and became popular, while in many cases public transport systems were intentionally gutted (as documented in the film “Taken for a Ride” by Klein and Olson). Since this urban sprawl, living in the suburbs is still highly popular, as well as the use of interstates and highways and our use of automobiles on them.

Much of the focus in the United States has been not on any alternatives to car transport, but on reducing emissions from individual cars. The Clean Air Act, first enacted in 1970, reduces the amount of pollutants that cars are allowed to emit into the air. By 1990, twenty years after it was first enacted, it made significant changes to the environment and the livelihood of people. It had prevented about 200,000 premature deaths and about 700,000 cases of chronic bronchitis.  Also in 1990, many revisions were made.  Some of these include ways to protect human health and the environment, to require areas with more of a serious pollution problem to adopt additional control measures and adopting new approaches to reduce toxic air pollution. Since 1990, the principal air pollutants have decreased by 41% while the Gross Domestic Product has increased 64%. Discussion is now underway to include carbon dioxide among the gases regulated by the Clean Air Act; it is estimated that this would reduce greenhouse gases 18% by 2020 and 27% in 2030.  Quickly, California and thirteen other states instated this act.  These include: Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.  The re-advocacy for the Clean Air Act jump started awareness across the country.

*Note: the above section needs to be checked for accuracy.

As of 2011 automakers agreed to more protective national limits to make cars that have better fuel economy standards and that have limits on climate pollution for models that will be made 2017-2025.  This was finalized as recently as August 2012.  The goals that they have set consist of shooting for 54.5 mpg (this will substantially reduce greenhouse gas emission) and decreasing carbon pollution by six billion tons from 2012 to 2025.  These are a few tentative steps appropriate for reducing greenhouse gas emission into the environment in order to create a greater abundance for Earth the living organisms on it.

Far more ambitious changes are being proposed by the Rocky Mountain Institute, suggesting far greater fuel efficiency (for example, 125-240 mpg cars) through the total redesign of cars with light-weight but strong materials. Their suggestions also include aspects of the sharing economy (such as car sharing), transport-oriented development, and the like. A link to their transportation page is provided below.

*Note: a section is need here on efforts to expand public transportation in the US, and to modify urban planning so that it supports numerous modes of travel, including walking, cycling, and public transportation.

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Approaches to creating greater abundance

Local/urban transportation

Integration of multiple modes

  • Infrastructure for walking and cycling
  • Traffic calming
  • Complete Streets
  • Transport-oriented development (TOD)
  • Interchanges among different modes of transport

Public transportation

  • Local rail systems (light rail, subways, etc.)
  • Bus rapid transit
  • Regional transportation systems

Automobile transportation

  • Car sharing

Long-distance transportation


High Speed Rails

More efficient technologies

Fuel efficient automobiles, airplanes

Electric bikes

Relocalization of production

Carbon taxes

Carbon trust

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Links and Stories

Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

California High Speed Rail

Interstate Highway System

Rocky Mountain Institute: Transportation

Walkscore (maps the walkability of US neighborhoods, also rates US cities on their public transport and bike-friendliness)


Cervero, Robert. 1998. The Transit Metropolis: A Global Inquiry.  Washington, D. C.: Island Press.  Chapter 10, Creating a Linear City with a Surface Metro: Curitiba, Brazil.

Federal Highway Administration. April 2012. Report to the U.S.Congress on the Outcomes of the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program SAFETEA-LU Section 1807

Gonzalez, George. 2009. Urban Sprawl, Global Warming, and the Empire of Capital. Albany, New York: SUNY Press.

Gunston, Bill. 1972. Transportation: Problems and Prospects. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co.

Illich, Ivan. 1974. Energy and Equity. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

Klein, J. and M. Olson. 1996. Taken for a Ride (documentary film). Hohokus, NJ: New Day Films.

Moore, Steven.  2007.  Alternative Routes to the Sustainable City: Austin, Curitiba, and Frankfurt.  Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.

Newman, Peter, Timothy Beatley, and Heather Boyer.  2009.  Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change.  Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Owen, Wilfred. 1987. Transportation and World Development. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.

Pucher, John, and Ralph Buehler. 2008. Making cycling irresistible: lessons from the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany. Transport Reviews 28 (4): 495-528.

Stone, Taylor. 1971. Beyond the Automobile. Englehood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

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Bradsher, Keith. December 26, 2012. China Opens Longest High-Speed Rail Line. New York Times.
U.S Geological Society. 2006. Materials in Use in U.S. Interstate Highways. Fact sheet.
Watson, Mark L. 2005. Habitat Fragmentation and The Effects of Roads on Wildlife and Habitats.
Braunstein, Mark Matthew. Last accessed August 2013.Culture Change.
Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Last accessed August 2013. Highways and Transit.
US EPA. Last accessed August 2013. Clean Air Act
US EPA. Last accessed August 2013. Clean Air Act Amendments.
Mahoney, Christopher. November 2011. High Speed Rails Environmental Impacts.

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