Racial Segregation Concentrates Residents of Color Near High-Polluting Roads, Study Shows

45% of Greater Boston’s Black residents, 47% of Asian residents, and 54% of Latino residents live in highest-polluting areas, compared to only 29% of White residents

Exposure linked to increased COVID-19 and other health risks

For immediate release: Monday, June 22, 2020    

BOSTON – Greater Boston residents of color are more likely to live near high-polluting roadways, putting them at increased risk of death from COVID-19, according to highly detailed map released by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) in Boston this week.

The study shows 45% percent of the region’s Black residents, 47% of the region’s Asian residents, and 54% of the region’s Latino residents live in the highest-pollution areas, compared to only 29% of the region’s white residents. Exposure to air pollution from vehicle tailpipes increases risk of heart and lung diseases, which in turn increases the risk of death for COVID-19 patients.

“While many studies have shown the link between living close to high-polluting roadways and increased risk of heart and lung disease, we wanted to actually map the exposure by race, and the results show deep patterns of inequity,” said Conor Gately, PhD, a co-author of the report and Senior Land Use and Transportation Analyst at MAPC. “The pandemic has really exposed the disparate impacts of pollution. As we shift into reopening and recovery, it will be critically important that our region confront these unequal public health outcomes.”

Vehicles, especially diesel-powered, heavy trucks, are a major source of an especially dangerous subset of air pollutants known as “ultra-fine particulates,” which are very small particulates that can penetrate deeper into the lungs and cause inflammation. Ultra-fine pollution is most intense at very close distances to the road, around 150 meters or less, meaning people who live in those zones have the highest risk of exposure.

View the interactive pollution proximity map here: https://mapc.github.io/MapboxEmbeds/ppi/index.html.

The study classified the pollution risk for very small geographic areas based on traffic volumes and vehicle characteristics for every stretch of roadway, then combined the data with highly detailed census information about demographics. Black, Asian, and Latino residents are over-represented in the worst emissions intensity group, with Latino residents seeing the biggest disparity between their share of the regional population and their share of people living in areas with the highest emissions. Even when measured within individual municipalities or only for the highest density parts of the region, residents of color are more likely to live near high-polluting roadways.

“As expected, we found that there are disproportionate numbers of Black, Latino, and Asian residents living closest to the worst polluting roads, relative to White residents. We see this pattern across the region, as well as in the urban core, and other areas with high population densities,” said Gately. “This really shows the importance of targeting local interventions to help these heavily impacted areas now, while also pushing forward broader regional efforts to green the entire transportation system.”

These inequities occur not just because more people of color live in denser urban areas or because they often have lower incomes and assets. The overlap between polluted areas and communities of color results from historical patterns of zoning, redlining, mortgage denial, siting of affordable housing, and construction of new urban freeways and expressways, all of which have resulted in segregation of people of color near the highest-risk, most polluting infrastructure.

“We have to recognize intentionality here,” said Marc Draisen, Executive Director of MAPC, adding, “People of color often live near highly polluting roadways because public officials, over many decades, have taken steps to put them there. Fortunately, there are steps we can take to address these inequities.”

The report makes several policy recommendations, many of which are outlined in a blog post at mapc.org/planning101/greater-boston-residents-color-pollution.

They include:

  • Empower communities of color in decision-making around new roadways;
  • Modify existing buildings to keep pollutants out;
  • Ensuring new buildings built near high-volume highways have air filtration;
  • Expand affordable housing into areas father away from highways;
  • Reduce local truck traffic, and ease intersection bottlenecks that cause congestion;
  • Locate new parks and playgrounds away from high-emission roads;
  • Encourage a cleaner transportation system by encouraging walking, biking, and electrified transit and discouraging reliance on fossil-fuel powered, single vehicle trips.

For more information, contact study co-authors Conor Gately at cgately@mapc.org and Timothy Reardon at treardon@mapc.org.

The full report and technical appendix is available at mapc.org/pollution-disparities-covid19.

Amanda Linehan
Communications Director
Metropolitan Area Planning Council
617-388-1556 (cell phone)