Building America: Transportation & Health

Take a closer look at American transportation systems.


Building America: Transportation & Health is a year-long seminar designed to give students an in-depth look at how Americans travel and the broad societal consequences of that travel. You will meet with transportation professionals, academics, non-profit leaders, and everyday Americans to hear their stories and what they are doing to improve transportation – and reduce its negative consequences – across the US. You will learn about how deliberate transportation policies and highway construction created the unequal world we live in today. You will be challenged to consider the inadvertent consequences of ordinary decisions – how where you live shapes the lives of others, for instance. You will collectively design a policy solution that remedies a particular transportation harm.

Transportation forms the literal connections between everything we do in our lives. We travel to routine destinations like schools, workplaces, and grocery stores. We also travel to doctor’s offices, arenas or stadiums, and restaurants and bars to visit with friends. Without the myriad transportation choices today, we’d be limited to a pretty small geographic area around our homes. Access to a car, bus, bicycle, or subway expands our set of possible destinations. Importantly, though, access to alternative modes of transportation is not equally distributed throughout American society.

At the same time, how we travel has profound consequences for our communities, environment, and health. Highway construction in the mid-20th century destroyed homes and neighborhoods. Transportation accounts for the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions by economic industry, with most transportation powered by fossil fuels. Transportation-related air pollution is a known health hazard and disproportionately harms residents of marginalized communities. This air pollution causes mortality increases for all age groups, higher asthma rates in children, autism spectrum disorder rates in infants and toddlers, and cardio-related hospitalizations among older adults. Transportation also causes nearly 45,000 deaths per year, with nearly 43,000 of these because of vehicle crashes.

In this seminar led by Professor Christopher Rick, we will explore the history of transportation, including President Dwight Eisenhower’s lasting role, and focus on a wide range of policy contexts – rural and urban; cars, buses, and trains; schools, employment, and health care access. We will do as much of our learning “on the move” as we can. We will discuss rural transportation while riding the Gettysburg-Hanover connector and intercity transportation riding Amtrak from Baltimore to Richmond and Syracuse to Newark. As much as we can, we will rely on local public transit to navigate within cities.

Connecting transportation, air quality, and health, we will travel to Baltimore, MD, Richmond, VA, Syracuse, NY and Newark, NJ* to hear from residents of local communities about how transportation-related air pollution affects their lives. We will also install air quality monitors in Richmond and Newark so that environmental justice organizations in these communities can monitor their air quality and advocate for change.

The seminar will conclude with a policy presentation to transportation professionals, industry leaders, and government professionals to propose a policy solution regarding transportation’s impact on American life today.

*cities subject to change

Fall 2024 Semester

Fall Session 1: History of Transportation in America
From Water to Transit to Highways – and Eisenhower’s Role
Monday, September 9, 6-8PM

This session provides a foundation for this year-long seminar on the role transportation plays in American life. We examine how Americans have traveled throughout the country’s history, how government policies have influenced travel choices, and a brief touch on the contemporary consequences of how we travel today.

Fall Session 2: Rural Transportation – Gettysburg to Hanover
Understanding dependence of cars for travel
Week of Monday, September 23 – Precise Time TBA

Nearly 10% of American households have no vehicles – and not all of them live in Manhattan. Here in Adams County, about 2% of households lack a car. These people often rely on bare-bones transit systems to commute to work, schools, healthcare, and for leisure. In this session, we will ride the Gettysburg-Hanover connector from downtown Gettysburg to downtown Hanover and experience the annoyance and struggles of trying to commute to work in a neighboring town. We will have a robust discussion of these issues on the bus ride.

Fall Session 3: Urban Transportation – Baltimore
Saturday, September 28

Even though a quarter of Baltimore’s households transit challenges still abound. At the same time, the dense urban neighborhoods are pockets of transportation-related air pollution – with well-researched impacts on human health.

During this day trip, we will explore the challenges of car-less travel in Baltimore and meet with transportation advocates in the area working to help low-income Marylanders overcome these challenges.

Fall Study Trip: Urban Transportation – Richmond
Friday October 18 (early afternoon) to Saturday, October 19 (full day)

We will travel to Richmond on Amtrak – America’s underfunded, intercity rail system – and learn about how the railroads shaped America and efforts to rebuild America’s rail network today.

In Richmond, we will spend the day with the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative to hear about transportation-related air consequences and talk to community members about potential locations for air quality monitors. We will install the air quality monitors before returning to Gettysburg.

Fall Session 4: Air Quality and Transportation
Monday, November 4, 6-8PM

After installing air quality monitors in Richmond, VA, we will explore how transportation affects air quality and environmental justice, with consequences for human health. We will reflect on our visit to Richmond and dig into medical effects of air pollution. We will begin to examine the Purple air quality monitoring data for Richmond.

Fall Session 5: Semester Celebration
Monday, November 18, 6-8PM

Spring 2025

Spring Session 1: School Transportation and its role for Equity
Monday, January 27, 6-8PM

Over 50 million students travel to school each day, and how they get their shapes whether they arrive at school ready to learn. At the same time, students with low-quality neighborhood schools may depend on school buses or other subsidized transportation to travel to a higher-quality or preferred school. In this session, we will explore the role transportation plays for students, including the origins of pupil transportation in America, the desegregation busing era, and school buses in the current era of school choice.

Spring Session 2: The Eisenhower Interstate System and Dismantling American Inner Cities
Monday, February 17, 6-8PM

As cars became the predominant form of transportation in America during the early 20th century, Americans rushed to build roads for them to travel. The Interstate System was born to connect major cities and military facilities, often at the expense of well-established, thriving Black neighborhoods. In this session, we will explore communities before, during, and after highway construction and learn about current efforts to tear down Interstate 81 that runs through Syracuse, NY. 

Spring Study Trip: Syracuse, NY and Newark, NJ
March 10-13, 2025 -- 3-night trip over Spring Break

This trip will first take us to Syracuse, NY, where city residents have been advocating for the teardown of the elevated portion of I-81 for decades. We will meet with locals working to keep the story of the old “Ward 15” alive and push the city to rebuild the neighborhood. The highway is beyond its expected life and is currently slated for teardown. It appears the next challenge of highway infrastructure will be to determine how to use land formerly occupied by the highway.

 From Syracuse, we will travel via Amtrak to Newark, NJ to meet with representatives of the South Ward Environmental Alliance. They advocate for improved environmental conditions for residents of Newark, including those affected by transportation pollution near the Port Newark – Elizabeth Marine Terminal. We will install air monitors in the South Ward and adjacent neighborhoods before returning to Gettysburg.

Spring Session 3: Examining Air Quality Data
Monday, March 17, 6-8PM

We will come together to examine the air quality data from Richmond and Newark. We will describe the air quality in the neighborhoods and compare it to data from pre-existing air quality monitors in other parts of their respective cities.

Spring Session 4: Preparing for Final Policy Day
Monday, March 31, 6-8PM 

Students will brainstorm and prepare their final policy topics.

Spring Session 5: Practice for Final Policy Day
Monday, April 7, 6-8PM

Students will practice their final presentations with College faculty and staff.

Final Session/Celebration: Policy Day in DC
Date TBA

Students will present policy proposals concerning transportation in America to industry, nonprofit, and government leaders in Washington DC.

Prospective Applicants

This year-long program is open to rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors at Gettysburg College. Students of all majors with an interest in transportation and health are encouraged to apply. Applicants are expected to be available for all sessions, trips, and activities during the program. 

Application Center