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Traffic density in California: Socioeconomic and ethnic differences among potentially exposed children


Motor vehicles are the main source of many hazardous air pollutants in California. Previous studies have shown that low-income and minority populations are more likely to live near industrial sources of pollution and in areas that do not meet national air quality standards. We estimated neighborhood exposures to motor vehicle emissions from a road network with daily traffic counts using a geographic information system. To calculate traffic density, we summed the average daily vehicle miles of travel per square mile of land area for each census block group in the state. We used 1990 census data to characterize the population by age, race and socioeconomic status in block groups with high traffic density. Block groups with more than 500,000 vehicle miles of travel per square mile were defined to be high traffic density. Statewide, about 5% of all block groups met this criterion and more than 215,000 children under 15 years of age lived in these high traffic density areas. Block groups in the lowest quartile of median family income were three times more likely to have high traffic density than block groups in the highest income quartile. The percentage of children living in high traffic density block groups increased with decreasing median family income for all race and ethnicities except White. Overall, children of color were about three times more likely to live in high-traffic areas than were white children. Based on this analysis, low-income and children of color have higher potential exposure to vehicle emissions. Future exposure assessment studies should target the highest traffic density areas, and health studies should consider the differences by income and race or ethnicity during design.

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annual average daily traffic


California Department of Transportation


geographic information system


socioeconomic status


vehicle miles traveled


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This work was funded by Grant Number R01 CA71745 from the National Cancer Institute. We thank Paul English for helpful comments and Theresa Saunders for preparation of the manuscript. The ideas and opinions expressed are those of the authors and no endorsement by the California Department of Health Services should be inferred.

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Correspondence to Robert B Gunier.

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Gunier, R., Hertz, A., von Behren, J. et al. Traffic density in California: Socioeconomic and ethnic differences among potentially exposed children. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol 13, 240–246 (2003).

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  • air pollution
  • children
  • environmental equity
  • epidemiology
  • geographic information system
  • socioeconomic status
  • traffic

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