Los Angeles Times

Pollution paradox: Drive more, suffer less

In Los Angeles, the less time you’re in a car, the more you’re exposed to toxic fumes, study finds.

- By Sammy Roth

Like many Angelenos, I spend a lot of time behind the wheel of my car. I drive from my Westside apartment to Dodger Stadium and farther east to hike in the San Gabriel Mountains. I take the 405 Freeway north to the San Fernando Valley to see friends, or occasional­ly south to the L.A. Times office — or to the airport, where I grow my carbon footprint even further.

So I couldn’t help but consider my own complicity while reading a new study from USC researcher­s, finding that Angelenos who drive more tend to be exposed to less air pollution — and Angelenos who drive less tend to be exposed to more pollution.

It may sound like a paradox, but it’s not. It’s a function of the racism that shaped this city and its suburbs, and continues to influence our daily lives — and a stark reminder of the need for climate solutions that benefit everyone.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Urban Studies. The core finding is that for every 1% increase in miles driven to and from work by people who live in a particular part of L.A. County, there’s an estimated 0.62% decrease in the lung-damaging “fine particulat­e matter” to which those Angelenos are exposed. How is that possible? The study’s lead author, USC urban planning professor Geoff Boeing, said it largely comes down to the shameful history of Los Angeles County’s low-income communitie­s of color being torn apart to make way for freeways. Today, many residents of the county’s whiter, more affluent neighborho­ods — who were often able to keep highways out of their own backyards — commute to work through lower-income Black and Latino neighborho­ods bisected by the 10, 110 and 105 freeways, among others.

“It’s not like commuters are coming in and shopping in those communitie­s, patronizin­g restaurant­s,” Boeing said. “They’re just driving through to get from one side of the city to the other.”

Southern California has some of the nation’s worst air quality. Cars and trucks are one of the main reasons — and the closer you are to the source, the more danger you face. Whenever I move, I insist on finding an apartment at least 1,000 feet away from the nearest freeway, because I’ve learned that people who live near freeways suffer higher rates of asthma, heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer, preterm births and potentiall­y other illnesses, such as dementia.

Boeing has gone a step further, taking an air-quality monitor with him when he and his wife were looking for a new home a few years ago. He got one of his highest readings for particulat­e matter near the 101 Freeway in Echo Park.

“I have a small child. I try as hard as I can to avoid air pollution,” he said.

Boeing’s family moved to South Pasadena — the “ultimate suburban flight story,” as he put it, and a place with a “terrible racial history.” Residents of the relatively affluent, predominan­tly white city were able to block constructi­on of the 710 Freeway through their neighborho­ods. As a result, he said, truck traffic from the ports of L.A. and Long Beach ends up routing through lower-income neighborho­ods in Alhambra, a city whose population is overwhelmi­ngly Asian and Latino.

Boeing is acutely aware that he and his wife and son are the beneficiar­ies.

“I absolutely love that there are no freeways anywhere near us,” he said.

As a white guy who’s lived on L.A.’s Westside for most of my life, I’ve benefited from the region’s sordid history as well. Much as I try to do my part — taking the train a couple of times a month, walking to local coffee shops and restaurant­s instead of driving across the city — there’s no question I contribute to the inequitabl­e air pollution that Boeing’s study describes.

Indeed, a map in the study shows how residents of whiter, wealthier communitie­s disproport­ionately drive to work through lowerincom­e Latino and Black neighborho­ods, spewing pollution. Residents of those neighborho­ods can’t do much about it.

“If you want to be exposed to less pollution, you can’t be the change you want to see in the world,” Boeing said. “It’s up to everybody else who is taking advantage of public infrastruc­ture and releasing tailpipe emissions.”

Boeing was careful to note that the study doesn’t conclusive­ly prove that patterns in how Angelenos get to work are solely responsibl­e for different levels of air pollution in different communitie­s. Majority-white Westside neighborho­ods, for instance, could also be benefiting from ocean breezes that push pollution into predominan­tly Black and Latino areas, he said.

But the researcher­s’ close examinatio­n of driving patterns, commute distances and pollution — which involved a combinatio­n of data analysis and modeling — painted a clear picture of environmen­tal injustice, Boeing said. In addition to the link between air quality and miles driven, his team found that nonwhite communitie­s face higher pollution levels across the board.

So what do solutions look like? Getting more people into electric cars is definitely one of them. Another USC study published last month found that as more people drive zero-emission cars in California, fewer people are being sent to emergency rooms for asthma — at least in the areas where people are buying and leasing those cleaner vehicles. Gov. Gavin Newsom has set a goal of ending the sale of most gasoline vehicles by 2035.

But switching from oil to electricit­y won’t solve everything, as Boeing’s study notes. Electric vehicles still produce harmful air pollution via dust from brake pads and toxic chemicals in tires. And cars of all kinds can kill pedestrian­s and drivers.

Policymake­rs could help limit the need for long commutes, Boeing and his coauthors wrote, by offering tax credits to incentiviz­e working from home and charging “congestion taxes” to make driving more expensive — an idea being studied by L.A. County.

The researcher­s also called for government to allow more apartment constructi­on in wealthier neighborho­ods, to make it easier for low-income families to live closer to where they work — instead of in faroff enclaves burdened by freeway pollution.

Building more public transit could make a difference too. But Boeing suggested that Southern California officials focus on buses more than trains, because the region’s sprawling suburbs often don’t lend themselves well to commuter rail.

“It’s hard to say that those ... dollars in rail investment are really going to work when there aren’t that many people within walking distance of those stations,” he said. “Buses need to be a more central part of the solution in Los Angeles, because you can provision hundreds of buses with frequent service for far less money than one train.”

I realize it’s not on my shoulders alone to make up for a long history of racist housing policies and freeway constructi­on. The same goes for you, if you’ve also benefited from that history. Finding ways to minimize and reverse ongoing inequities, while solving the climate crisis, is a project for all of society — government, industry and individual­s alike.

But to the extent I can help, by driving less and taking transit more? And by spreading the word about studies like this one?

That’s an easy win.

This story was originally published in Boiling Point, an email newsletter about climate change and the environmen­t in California and the American West. Go to latimes.com/boilingpoi­nt to sign up.

‘Buses need to be a more central part of the solution in Los Angeles.’ — Geoff Boeing,

USC urban planning professor

 ?? Robert Gauthier Los Angeles Times ?? THE SOUTHLAND has some of the nation’s worst air quality. Above, the 110 and 105 Freeway interchang­e at the pandemic’s start in 2020.
Robert Gauthier Los Angeles Times THE SOUTHLAND has some of the nation’s worst air quality. Above, the 110 and 105 Freeway interchang­e at the pandemic’s start in 2020.

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