U.S. scores poorly in relationship between transportation sustainability and human capital

By Robbie Webber

A paper published by University of Connecticut Engineering and Geography faculty, titled Relationship between quality of life and transportation sustainability in the United States and selected European countries, offers a look at whether the burdens of transportation systems are resulting in gains for the nation as a whole. And the U.S. does not stack up well in the report.

The authors used indicators of environmental, economic, and social sustainability to build an overall National Transportation Sustainability Index (NTSI) for 27 European countries as well as the U.S., and then compared that index to indicators of human capital and quality of life such as a high health index, high educational attainment, and low poverty level.

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Data from both 2005 and 2011 were used, and the relative position of countries was compared. With the exception of the U.S., countries with high human capital showed corresponding high levels of transportation sustainability. Conversely, countries with high levels of motoring showed low levels of transportation sustainability. This is mostly shown in the levels of car ownership.

Countries were broken out into groups based on geography and when they joined the European Union: EU pre-1995 members, EU 1995-2005 members, EU post 2005, Nordic countries regardless of EU membership, and Switzerland and the U.S. each in its own category. The newest EU countries have the best performance in 2005 on the environmental sub-index, but the advantage was almost entirely erased by 2011. The authors attribute this to the rise of motoring in those countries.

Almost every country had changes in their relative position on the NTSI between 2005 and 2011, with some improving their ranking and others sinking. But Lithuania and the U.S. remained unchanged, and both were at the bottom (U.S.) and second to last (Lithuania) in both lists. The U.S. actually had a worse ranking in 2011 than in 2005.

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When comparing the sustainability index with human capital indicators, there is a general positive correlation, with higher NTSI scores on the environmental and social components found in countries with higher health indicators and educational attainment and lower poverty levels. The exception to this is the U.S., which has relatively high human capital outcomes but very low transportation sustainability. The economic component showed no correlation to human capital indicators.

Full details of the rankings on various indices and the methodology used can be found in the paper.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.