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Transportation, Society, and the Environment

Thus far, we have explored the many ways in which transportation contributes to the economic health of individuals, businesses, and entire nations, by facilitating the flow of commerce and providing employment opportunities. Transportation can impact our lives in other profound ways, however. In some ways, it can be lifesaving; in others, it is damaging. In this section, we explore some of the different ways transportation affects society and our physical environment.

In the case of emergency situations and calls for humanitarian relief, transportation is essential to supporting lifesaving missions. Such is the case following a natural disaster. When earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, or other events imperil a region, the ability to deliver supplies of water, medical equipment, communication equipment, and energy is most pressing. In recent years, relief organizations have adopted advanced transportation methods to support the ability to deploy crucial resources to those in need whenever and wherever a crisis arises.

Transportation also plays a critical role in the success of military endeavors, dating back to the days of Thutmose III and his storied conquests in the fifteenth century B.C. that transformed Egypt into a “superpower.” The same assertion holds true today. The timely deployment of soldiers, armaments, and supplies has often been credited with the success or failure of military campaigns and peacekeeping missions. A considerable share of the budget for any substantial military body is the provision of transporting soldiers and supplies.

Transportation activity also results in many unintended consequences on society. It is one activity that interfaces directly with people in their day-to-day lives. Manufacturing, another major economic activity, occurs within the confines of buildings. Transportation, on the other hand, involves roadways that passenger vehicles share. More than 32,000 fatalities and 2.2 million injuries occurred on U.S. highways in 2011, with about 1 in 10 fatalities attributed to collisions involving large trucks.8 Fortunately, these numbers represent steady declines over the past several decades. The declines can be attributed to immense safety improvements in passenger vehicles, increased use of safety belts, and fewer incidents involving alcohol. Sharing the roads with 80,000-pound tractor-trailers and crossing railroad grades remain hazardous though.

Transportation is also the biggest consumer of energy resources in our economy, easily outpacing manufacturing and consumer household usage. According to the Department of Energy, the U.S. transportation system consumes more than 13 million barrels of petroleum each day. This also leads to transportation’s regrettable role as the largest contributor to greenhouse gases. Transportation is responsible for emitting nearly 2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in the United States each year. Growing concerns of sustainability are changing the way many companies elect to ship products and also the operations of the transportation providers themselves. The carbon footprint for a shipment, an estimate of the greenhouse gases emitted, has become a critical measure of transportation performance, alongside transit time and cost. Consumers are demanding sustainable products and cleaner ways of transporting them. Since 2009, UPS has offered a carbon-neutral service: The shipping company offsets the carbon emissions associated with package delivery by investing in carbon-reduction projects around the world.

Finally, in light of its central role in economic activity, transportation is also a common target for terrorist activity. Whether one considers the hijacking of passenger airlines on September 11, 2001; the disruption of pipelines in oil-producing countries; the use of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) or “car bombs”; or the hijacking of ships off the coast of Africa, transportation assets can be particularly difficult to secure and, thereby, vulnerable to attack. The formation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) immediately following the terrorist attacks of September 2001 serves as testament to the intense focus placed on security and safety in transportation activity. To date, much focus has been directed to passenger safety, although freight transportation has seen greater regulation and scrutiny of shipments. This trend is expected to continue into the future.

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