In his July 27th column, “Our traffic planning is killing us,” Bill Bauer claims that Santa Monica’s planning to accommodate other modes of travel other than the automobile has adverse health impacts on those living near roadways.
Bill is right that our traffic planning is killing us. But it isn’t killing us because we’re trying to make more accommodations for cyclists, pedestrians, and people who use transit. It’s killing us because of a century-long legacy of prioritizing large, energy-inefficient, high-emitting machines over the other ways that people move around. This prioritization has, understandably, made the automobile the most convenient choice for many trips. Balancing the playing field for bikes, pedestrians, and transit sometimes means shrinking the advantage that cars have been given over these less-polluting modes.
The specific problem that Bill presents, stop-and-go traffic producing higher levels of pollution and health impacts, is something that California has been addressing for decades. The state has the most aggressive vehicle emissions standards in the country. The majority of new vehicles sold meet California’s stringent Ultra-Low Emissions standard, meaning the average new vehicle is 10 times cleaner than a 2003 Toyota Camry. The newest vehicles even cut their engines when idling at stop lights. Because the vehicles in Santa Monica are newer and more eco-friendly (the city had the US’s highest concentration of Priuses back when hybrid cars were novel), the problem Bill describes has less of an impact here in Santa Monica than other parts of the region, the country and the world.
The difficult, long-standing vehicle pollution problems are those related to the distance we drive, fuel type and emissions control technology: ground-level ozone, ultrafine particles (including soot that is small enough to enter the bloodstream through capillaries in the lungs), and greenhouse gas emissions. Ground-level ozone and ultrafine particle concentrations are particularly high near high-volume roadways, where they create respiratory problems such as asthma and other health problems we’re still learning about. This harmful, localized pollution exists in greatest concentrations near freeways with heavy truck traffic, such as the 710.
Greenhouse gas emissions don’t have localized impacts, but their global effects intensify over time and are difficult to reverse. Global climate change will bring more heat waves, changing weather patterns and increased exposure to sudden flooding, sea level rise, disease mitigation, species extinction and food chain disruption; these impacts will kill millions.
To those motivated by Bill’s call to action to improve the health and well-being of those impacted by our transportation system: press the City even harder to be a catalyst for sustainable transportation locally, regionally, and globally; encourage the City to make bike share, Expo, and the Big Blue Bus smashing successes that provide attractive alternatives to driving; and support the upcoming Pedestrian Action Plan, the next step in making walking in Santa Monica safer and more enjoyable.
It’s by leveling the playing field for sustainable transportation that we’ll reduce health impacts; not by penalizing those who seek alternatives to more driving, more emissions, and more traffic.
Juan Matute is a lecturer in Urban Planning & Environmental Science at UCLA