New paper out! Environmental exposure during travel: A research review and suggestions forward

Age Poom, Elias Willberg, Tuuli Toivonen

Our seminal research review paper on environmental exposures during travel is now published in the journal Health & Place! 

Urban travel environments exposure people to a range of environmental conditions, such as traffic noise, air pollution or street-level greenery. These exposures may cause both positive and negative health and wellbeing consequences. Knowledge of the dynamics of environmental exposures during travel, and their social and health outcomes would help improve the liveability and sustainability of our cities through evidence-based transport and urban planning.

We conducted a systematic review of the scholarly literature on environmental exposure during travel. We aimed to understand the state of the art of the research field and identify areas for further studies. We identified 104 relevant peer-reviewed journal articles worldwide. The research field is clearly emerging with increasing number of studies published each year. The distribution of the study areas indicates a global bias in the research field towards western cities, where the research tradition is longer. However, last years have witnessed a rapid increase in the number of studies conducted in China and India. A good global coverage of research supports local planning and governance, and better mitigates the risk of environmental health disparities in all parts of the world.

The number of studies published globally in different year ranges (A), and the spatial distribution of studies in different world regions using the same year ranges for the bars (B). The locations of individual study sites are indicated as points on the map (B). Source: Poom et al. 2021

The review showed that the key methodological challenge of the research field is the spatiotemporal coupling of travel and environmental data. Different travel modes, routes, and times expose people to different environmental conditions. The research field has strongly benefitted from the emerging location-aware sensor technology to capture the dynamics of both travel behaviour as well as environmental conditions. The future research could take the advantage of mobile Big Data to examine travel-related exposure also at the scale of populations.

Environmental exposure during travel is an interplay between people, their travel behaviour, and the surrounding travel environment. Understanding environmental exposures during travel calls for spatially and temporally detailed data on all aspects, on human scale. Source: Poom et al. 2021

The review gave evidence that most of the travel-related exposure research focuses on air pollution. Exposure to other environmental conditions, such as traffic noise or street-level greenery, has received only little scholarly attention. Even less is known about the patterns of multiple and cumulative environmental exposures during travel. More research attention is needed on the associations between travel behaviour, multiple environmental exposures, and resulting health and wellbeing effects. The future research should aim to develop shared and standardised study protocols as well as provide open data sets to make travel-related exposure studies comparable and draw conclusions of health and wellbeing effects through dedicated meta-analyses.

We conclude that there is a need to overcome disciplinary silos and integrate the expertise of exposure and health researchers, environmental scientists, transport and geospatial researchers, and sustainability and welfare scholars to advance the research field. Scholarly emphasis on good travel environments on human scale can advance the designing of just and sustainable cities.

Full reference of the article:

Poom, A., Willberg, E., Toivonen, T. (2021). Environmental exposure during travel: A research review and suggestions forward. Health & Place 70, 102584,

The Digital Geography Lab at the University of Helsinki is an interdisciplinary research team focusing on spatial Big Data analytics for fair and sustainable societies.