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Texas Child Care Centers Near High-Volume Roadways: A Cause for Concern

By Sophie Beasley

Traffic pollution contributes to premature death and various health problems, including asthma, cardiovascular disease, impaired lung development, and childhood leukemia. And yet, thousands of Texas children spend much of their time near the pollution generated at major roadways almost daily.

Public Citizen arrived at such a conclusion when it set out to answer a simple question: How many Texas child care centers are close enough to major roads to be affected by traffic pollution?

The following maps offer a portrait of what we found. Click to view maps of the various metro areas/regions.

Children are particularly at risk of developing health issues related to traffic pollution because their respiratory systems are not fully developed, they breathe more in proportion to their body size than adults, and they tend to spend more time outdoors. Even though the adverse health effects of traffic pollution are well-established, about 6.4 million children in the US attend a school within 250 meters of a major roadway and are consequently exposed to air pollution nearly every day.

How We Analyzed the Data

We searched a publicly available list of over 13,600 child care centers from the Texas Child Care Availability Portal and geocoded them into ArcGIS. For this research, we focused only on the state’s licensed child care centers – about 9,600 total – and omitted licensed and registered child care homes from the final analysis.

(A preliminary analysis that included home-based child care centers revealed that proximity to major roadways generally isn’t an issue – likely because residential property is less likely to be close to major roads when compared to commercial property.)

We determined which roadways to analyze based on a metric called Annual Average Daily Traffic (AADT). AADT measures the total vehicle traffic volume in a year on a roadway divided by 365 days. In layperson’s terms, AADT refers to how busy a road tends to be. Researchers use AADT to determine which streets have enough traffic to cause significant pollution.

The specific AADT value researchers use to assess exposure risk varies substantially, as does the distance buffer. For instance, some researchers focused on schools within 500 feet of roads with AADT greater than 30,000, while others looked at schools within 575 feet of a “high traffic” road, which they determined as any with AADT greater than 90,000. On top of this, the U.S. Department of Transportation uses a traffic health indicator called “proximity to major roadways,” which looks at anyone living within 650 feet of a road with an AADT greater than 125,000. While there is no set standard for the amount of traffic that poses a health risk, this provided a starting point for our analysis.

We looked at child care centers within 600 feet of roadways with AADT greater than or equal to 50,000. We obtained road and current AADT data from the Texas Department of Transportation. We chose the 600 feet buffer because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognizes that the highest concentrations of traffic air pollutants are within 500-600 feet of roadways. In addition to a state-wide analysis, we also used the U.S. Census Bureau’s metropolitan statistical areas to analyze the percentage of centers near high-volume roads in Texas’ major metro areas, including Austin-Round Rock-Georgetown, Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, and Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington. The table below provides a summary of our findings.

View this Google sheet for a complete list of licensed child care centers included in this research and those within 600 feet of a high-volume roadway.

Concluding Thoughts and Possible Solutions

A multitude of factors can impact traffic pollution patterns, and how they affect human health, so there are a few limitations to our research that could be explored as part of further study. For example, in terms of direction and speed, wind is an excellent determinant of how far traffic pollution can spread and where it settles. Schools downwind of major roadways are more affected by traffic pollution than those upwind, even if they are equidistant from the road. Knowing this, it is clear that wind patterns within and between Texas cities may affect how child care centers within 600 feet of high-volume roadways are affected by traffic pollution. Factors like traffic congestion and vehicle type (such as diesel trucks versus passenger vehicles) can also impact traffic pollution in a way that AADT does not consider.

Though all roadways above 50,000 AADT are considered high-volume, those on the higher end of the AADT spectrum cause more pollution. Some licensed child care centers within 600 feet of a high-volume roadway are more impacted by traffic pollution than others. Our research highlights the centers at a higher risk of being affected by nearby traffic pollution.

While the percentage of Texas licensed child care centers near high-volume roads (4.04%) is relatively low, thousands of children in the state attend child care centers daily where they are exposed to traffic pollution. A provider may open a child care center near a major roadway for many reasons – lower property costs, city zoning restrictions, or ease of access for parents during drop off/pick up – but, ultimately, children’s health should outweigh these considerations.

Here are a few policy recommendations which could reduce the harmful effects of traffic pollution on young children in the state:

  • Ban new construction of child care centers and schools in Texas within 600 feet of high-volume roadways. California implemented a similar ban in 2003 for schools across the state.
  • For child care centers that cannot relocate, providers can follow the EPA’s “Best Practices for Reducing Near-Road Pollution Exposure at Schools,” which includes recommendations like installing high-grade air filters, closing windows during high-traffic times, planning outdoor activities during low-traffic times, and more.
  • City planners can support initiatives that reduce pollution from the source and adopt net-zero carbon goals.
  • Expand public transportation, set goals for zero emissions vehicle purchases, and install electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
  • Because many parents are unaware of the dangers of traffic pollution, city officials and nonprofits can work together to raise awareness.

No child should suffer health complications simply because of where they attend a child care center or school. This research and these policy recommendations can help minimize that risk.

Sophie Beasley is a student at the University of Texas at Austin, double majoring in Sustainability Studies and Geography. She is the Summer 2023 Environmental Policy and Advocacy Intern for the Texas office of Public Citizen in Austin.

Sophie Beasley is a student at the University of Texas at Austin, double majoring in Sustainability Studies and Geography. She is the Summer 2023 Environmental Policy and Advocacy Intern for the Texas office of Public Citizen in Austin.