Carmageddon Was Doomsday for SoCal Smog

Oct 3rd, 2012 | Posted by

There are few sights more amazing than Southern California on a clear day. It usually happens a few times a year, just after a winter storm has blown through, or during the Santa Ana winds in the fall. Growing up in Orange County, these crystal clear days were some of my favorites. We could look north to see the snowcapped San Gabriels, with the air so clear it felt like you could reach out and touch the peaks. Get a little bit higher up, in the hills, and you could see downtown LA, the Hollywood sign (with binoculars), even the Malibu hills. Look out toward the ocean and there lies Catalina, long and inviting.

Los Angeles, CA, with air you can't see

Usually, such sights are impossible. SoCal smog – the combination of the marine layer with the pollutants that are spewed largely from automobiles – typically hide the San Gabriels and Catalina from view. I always remembered the smog being worse in the 1980s than later. Tighter air quality rules helped.

But last year, Southern Californians learned that they could have clean air year-round – if only they were willing to take action to address the impacts of the internal combustion engine. According to a UCLA study, Carmageddon – the weekend-long closure of the 405 freeway through the Sepulveda Pass – led to immediate and dramatic reductions in pollution:

Suzanne Paulson and colleague Yifang Zhu measured pollutants in the air during Carmageddon last year and have recently released their pretty astounding findings. Air quality near the normally busy highway improved by 83 percent that day last July, relative to comparable weekends. Elsewhere in West Los Angeles, the improvement was equally dramatic. Air quality improved by 75 percent on that side of the city and in Santa Monica, and by 25 percent throughout the entire region, as a measure of the drop in ultrafine particulate matter associated with tailpipe emissions.

“We saw what we expected: you take motor vehicles away, the air gets really, really clean,” Paulson says, “which tells us that most of the pollution is from motor vehicles from one type or another in this area.”…

The researchers found that particulate matter dropped significantly within minutes of the road closure (accordingly, it ramped back up the moment traffic resumed). And this is significant for policy reasons. When it comes to the environment, we’re often talking about making difficult or expensive investments in the short term that may not pay off for years to come. But this research underscores that changes in transportation policy or vehicle technology could yield practically instantaneous improvements in the quality of air (and quality of life) for people today.

“In the broadest picture,” Paulson says, “what these measurements gave me was a view into what a future would be like where either people were using much more mass transit, and/or they’re driving vehicles that are really very clean and that remain very clean throughout their lives.”

You can’t overstate the importance of this study. It shows a direct correlation between lighting oil on fire for transportation purposes and pollution. And while cleaner skies and clearer views are one result, a much more important result is on public health. Studies indicate that automobile emissions play an important role in childhood asthma. We also know that cars and trucks are responsible for about 35% of carbon emissions in California, making their reduction a top priority for dealing with global warming.

High speed rail is a key element of reducing those pollutants, helping kids breathe cleaner air and helping to reduce the state’s carbon footprint. The rail projects that Metro is planning in LA will have a greater impact on air quality in the coastal basin. But in the Central Valley, it will be high speed rail that will have the greatest impact on removing cars from the roads. In the Valley, transportation is a major cause of air quality problems, including asthma.

What Californians saw on Carmageddon weekend in the summer of 2011 was a glimpse of a cleaner future. Ironically, that glimpse was offered as part of a project to widen the 405 freeway through the Sepulveda Pass, a project that won’t help clean the skies or childrens’ lungs. But a massive expansion of electrified passenger rail, from high speed trains to local neighborhood streetcars and everything in between, would help provide lasting improvement to the air – while also providing an affordable, convenient way to get around without sitting in traffic.

What are we waiting for?!

  1. jimsf
    Oct 3rd, 2012 at 08:20

    I’m always blown away by those clear days in the basin, esepcially the ones in winter with the snow covered peaks. headed to PSP tomorrow, hope ts stays this way.

    joe Reply:

    After the Northridge Earthquake dimmed the lights, 911 had calls from a curious public asking if the strange lights in the night sky were they related to the Earthquake.

  2. Reedman
    Oct 3rd, 2012 at 10:11

    Use nuclear — available 24/7, no air pollution.

    Use nuclear to run the electric trains, charge electric cars, and desalinate the ocean water (San Diego just announced they are going forward with desalination — the biggest present plant in the US is on Tampa Bay at Apollo Beach, FL).

    P.S. In NorCal, we had “Spare The Air” days this weekend because the winds were from the northeast (inland) instead of the ocean, which also caused the unseasonably warm weather (people in San Francisco were seen without sweatshirts and parkas).

    P.P.S. On the ballot in November in San Francisco is Proposition F, which wants to drain Hetch Hetchy to get rid of flood control, year-round water, and all that nasty hydropower.

  3. Reedman
    Oct 3rd, 2012 at 10:19

    Update on the train/truck crash in the Central Valley:

    Roger Christensen Reply:

    Kings County Supervisor John Valle has already gone on camera stating that it’s a good thing it wasn’t one of those bullet trains or there would have been lots of death. Of course, when a rig plows through crossing gates and flashing lights it’s a train wreck and not a truck wreck. And if it were HSR it would have probably been closed or grade separated.
    The next day a few miles away three college students are killed speeding on a country road and not an eyebrow raised by any local politician.

    Peter Reply:

    Kings County BOS = Trolls.

    William Reply:

    About HSR grade-separation, on flat-land, is HSR-on-top safer for the trains than road-on-top? I think HSR-on-top might be safer as there is no chance cars can drive off the over-pass and fall on HSR tracks.

    thatbruce Reply:


    Far more expensive to elevate the trains to cross a road compared to elevating the road.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    Try crash barriers a long way each side of the bridge. Vide Great Heck (sic) collision in UK, Land Rover and trailer went down unprotected bank into path of freight and intercity trains south of York
    Killed 11, Feb 2001 I think

    Joey Reply:

    rail-on-top is in many cases cheaper because the required difference in height is less. If vehicles driving off of overpasses was a serious problem we’d know about it already.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    The difference in height is smaller, but the difference in ruling grade makes up for that.

    Andy M Reply:

    you can leave rail on the level though, and trench the road instead.

  4. synonymouse
    Oct 3rd, 2012 at 11:13

    miscellaneous comments:

    Do you really think LA is going to let SF tear down Hetch-Hetchy when Fallen Angels is in the process of ramming thru a Peripheral Tunnel to send Delta water south? It is a federal issue anyway – it took the Raker Act to ok it at a time when LA was a pipsqueak. No more.

    Private investors of any consequence are not going to accept the likes of PB or Villovitch dictating the parameters of the hsr operation. SNCF demonstrated that already. And someone of the caliber of Branson has the determination and the means to secure their demands:

    And Roundabout Rail is a certain fiscal bomb. The only way you are going to get a private operator to take on an AmBART like the PB-CHSRA stinker is just to pay them a certain figure up front. And that won’t last long as the politically connected unions will go on strike to force a return to guvmint operation.

    Somewhat OT. Went to Sac last weekend to the Ca. Rail Museum and UP 150 celebration. Lot of attendance but the 844 was stone cold. I guess that’s due to cost and liability issues. Just not very impressive.

    We took a side trip to Thunder Valley, which is run by the same LV outfit(Stations Casinos)that will operate the new Rohnert Park casino. The smoke you can get used to but the blinking noise obnoxious. They are even pumping the sound into the parking lot.

    Which brings me to my point. They had a huge second parking lot that was totally empty. This is sorta the theme of the whole aree – this is in Lincoln. Just incredible sprawl – the whole Sacramento conurbation is spread out in every direction. I understand Fresno and Bakersfield are just as sprawled if not worse.

    Trying to counter this extreme auto-centrism by building 99 corridor hsr is thankless social engineering of the dumbest and useless kind. What a waste of money trying to create downtowns here; just use the already available I-5 ROW and in the process save a lot of money and optimize the SF-LA trip, where the real money lies.

    Just buy off Fresno with a spur; Palmdale with some Metrolink upgrades; and the Tejon Ranch Co. golf course with an offer they can’t refuse known as eminent domain.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    all of that and the Nancy Pelosi mind rays.

    Alan Reply:

    “PB-CHSRA stinker” = blah, blah, blah…
    “politically connected unions” = blah, blah, blah…

    If you’re going to keep singing, at least favor us with a different song. And I suppose you’d be happier if the people running 200mph trains made minimum wage and depended on food stamps to make ends meet?

    synonymouse Reply:

    airline non-pilot wages, not TWU 250A public ripoff.

    TehaVegaSkyRail is not just a stinker – c’est de la merde avec du poil la-dedans.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    Formidable, il chante en francais…

    ericmarseille Reply:

    Synonymouse, french is an extremely difficult langage to master – and as much I admire your level in French, please realize that the slightest slip (and you’ll savor this one!) in my beloved mother tongue can make a fool out of anyone…

    You meant “c’est de la merde avec du poil dedans”, which means that you were describing some weird, unknonw to our shores, probably american stuff (some kind of processed food maybe?).

    But what you said, “c’est de la merde avec du poil là-dedans”, means that you’re describing the stuff from INSIDE.

    Of course you are free to chose your promenades…But I will distance myself from you for a while…Physically, that is.

    But while we’re at it, and since this blog is so highly political, let’s remember that slogan that so many French Politicians, including the ones who helped the TGV being made a reality, have said in private over the years : ” la politique, c’est comme l’andouillette, il faut que ça sente un peu la merde, mais jamais trop.”

    ‘Politics, just like chitterlings, have to smell of shit a bit, but never too much.”

    J. Wong Reply:

    Or in American English we say “Politics is like making sausage, no one wants to see it being done”.

    synonymouse Reply:

    @ ericmarseille

    I have to confess that was a phrase I learned from a Canadien Francais from Brandon, Manitoba while at McGill University Ecole Francaise d’Ete in Montreal in the summer of 1964.

    I always figured that Leon Molgat was taking a few liberties with the French of the Metropole. But it does get the message across.

    Of course I could have misheard and added the la, but I don’t think so. The femmes de chambrat the McGill housing spoke a Canadien I could not make out. It might as well have been Hungarian.

    ericmarseille Reply:

    As I always say, Quebeckers (we never call them French-Canadians) are the kindest people around after the Ch’timis, but the problem with them is that they don’t speak French, none of them :)

    Just kidding of course

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Yeah, I’ve heard the trope that French people don’t recognize Quebecois as French many times before. But when I ask for specifics, I usually get very small differences, like le weekend vs. le fin-de-semaine. By the standards of Belgian septante, octante, and nonante it sounds tame.

    ericmarseille Reply:

    They’re Canadians. We’re French. We don’t understand quite a lot of their vocabulary and their accent makes the same effect on us as a nail ripping on a blackboard. But we love their openness and whole-heartedness. Simple as that.
    I’ll stop there, I don’t want to be nailed by Robert.

    VBobier Reply:

    Well their of French ancestry, as I am, as far as I know.

    synonymouse Reply:

    I remember a professor chuckling over a sign he had seen at a gas station in Quebec advertising “nos huiles lubriques”. Evidently it means something quite more licentious in the Metropole.

  5. Reality Check
    Oct 3rd, 2012 at 13:31

    Caltrain sets another [ridership] record

    Caltrain’s trend of increased ridership has now reached 25 consecutive months as the commuter rail line set another ridership record for the month of August.

    The numbers are up, in part, due to the more than 86,000 fans who rode Caltrain to the San Francisco Giants’ 12 home games at AT&T Park in August, an 11 percent increase over 2011 numbers.

    In June, Caltrain broke an all-time ridership record when an average of more than 50,000 riders a day hopped on the local commuter train, the most in its 150-year history.

    It also had the best July ever and the numbers for total ridership in August were up 7.8 percent compared to last year from 1.25 million to 1.35 million. The service had about 3,000 more riders a day in August as the average weekday ridership jumped from 45,204 last year to 48,634 this year.

    More riders increased farebox revenue in August by 12.1 percent, according to a staff report the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board will hear at its Thursday meeting.

    Ridership has climbed for more than two years now as Caltrain sets to embark on a multi-year modernization project that will electrify its tracks, allowing it to run more trains when the project is completed in 2019. The state just released $40 million last week in Proposition 1A bond money to kick-start the project, estimated to cost about $1.5 billion when complete.

    Reality Check Reply:

    More riders increased farebox revenue in August by 12.1 percent, according to a staff report the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board will hear at its Thursday meeting.

    synonymouse Reply:

    And full BART would be carrying 3 times as many riders, but hold the broad gauge crinkled beercans.

    Peter Reply:

    Can’t wait for the Rohnert Park Casino to open, then we won’t have to read your inane comments any longer.

    Eric M Reply:

    That casino is one thing we DON”T want up in the north bay.

    synonymouse Reply:

    Quite the contrary, IMHO.

    What we don’t need is low-income housing and the criminal element it imports.

    Eric M Reply:

    It has been proven casinos bring massive amounts of the “criminal element”. It should have been built where it was originally proposed, out on Highway 37 near sears point.

    Alon Levy Reply:


    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    I understand the Monaco casino is a little different from just about any other.

    One, it’s owned by the government, and a monarchy at that. That would, at least in that case, keep out the criminal element, unless you have a corrupt government (not too hard to do). In addition to that, Monaco’s own residents are prohibited from playing in their own casino. (“Hey, if we’re going to clip people, at least we won’t clip our own.”) The casino’s roulette wheels also do not have something called a “double black.” Apparently this is a standing house position on the wheel, and its absence means your odds of winning, small though they may be, are doubled. For gamblers, or as our businesspeople in the field call them, gamers, that would be an important attraction. It does cut the casino’s revenues considerably–I understand Monaco’s has a revenue level about half that of others that have the double-black–but that’s still a pile of money coming in.

    Having said all that, can you imagine the noise, most likely from the right wing, about a proposal to run a government casino here? It would be a combination of “government fostering irresponsibility,” (running the casino at all), that it would be discriminatory (“You have a God-given right to play, even if you make a fool of yourself!”), and charges of government inefficiency (“That casino only has half the revenue of one run by private enterprise!”)

    Of course, what all that noise would REALLY be about is that the criminal corporate enterprises that run casinos elsewhere would like to get their mits on the operation for themselves!

    Alon Levy Reply:

    You’re mixing things that don’t matter much and things that don’t matter at all. So:

    1. It’s common in a lot of countries to forbid citizens from entering the casinos. Monaco is the place where this matters the least. If you’re a citizen, you have access to very good welfare; the casino won’t throw you on the streets. It’s the people from the surrounding French towns the NIMBYs are worried about.

    2. The odds don’t really make people less NIMBYish or less likely to gamble away their lie savings. At most they mean losing everything will take a bit longer.

    3. The odds are not actually better in Monaco than in Vegas. They are on roulette (though I think the non-fancy casinos do have double-zero – I’ll ask my mom, who actually plays roulette occasionally, which I don’t), but the blackjack rules and the video poker odds are worse. The people who are trying to not lose play blackjack or video poker anyway because they have far lower house edges than anything else if you play perfectly. The slots are slots everywhere.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    … the only thing you need to know about casinos is that the house always wins. Maybe not from you on a particular day but with all those suckers at the tables and machines, the house always wins.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    Double black is American roulette, we add weight to even gambling device

    Nathanael Reply:

    The casinos in Monaco *do* bring in the criminal element. Monaco is simply rich enough and comprehensively policed enough to deal with it.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    The money for the comprehensive police comes from casino and related tourism revenues.

    synonymouse Reply:

    @ Eric M

    Where is the criminal element in Carson City brought in by the Nugget?

    ABAG demanded low income housing turns out not to be for the poor people already in town – they bring in lowlifes from the ghettos to fill these places. Ask homeowners in Antioch. Hey, how about a section 8 housing block next to Feinsteins’s manse in Presidio Heights? Or maybe George Lucas can finance some low income high-rises in Kentfield or, Tiburon, or Sausalito.

    A few days ago my daughter calls me up all upset because she is looking out the window at a bunch of cops storming the house across the street with their guns drawn. This is in G section RoPo, not down by the freeway. And interestingly both she and her husband are against the casino. I say money from the casino can pay for more cops. And Rohnert Park derives zero benefit from hosting Sonoma State. There is zilch interface, no town and gown.

    California is becoming an international scandal. France 2 tv did a long segment last nite on the Stockton bankruptcy scandal. Maybe they should do an expose on the shabby treatment of SNCF by Moonbeam, PG&E Richard, Barry Zoeller, Villovitch & cie.

    Eric M Reply:

    Tom McNamara Reply:


    I got news for you. I’ve lived in high end apartment complexes as well as affordable housing. While I have witnessed police stake outs, DEA busts, and crime vans at the high end privately owned complexes, so far I have seen nothing but faulty wiring and college kids at the affordable housing property.

    I know you might not like the idea of sharing the planet with those of us in the “47%”, but the reality is that any time you want to stop shopping at Costco and Walmart and other stores that undercut American labor, your “ghetto” friends can pack their bags back for urban areas where there are jobs in manufacturing and leave you and the unsustainable bedroom-community lot to die in the hinterlands.

    Reedman Reply:

    FYI, the new Casino M8trix (not a typo) is now open in San Jose, by the airport (this uses the card club license that used to be be the Garden City Casino). It’s about 600 feet from the Metro/Airport Light Rail Station.

    joe Reply:

    The service needs to provide information about delays and they are really having a tough time with the crowding on some trains.

    We were late with a child pick-up this week due to unannounced Caltrain delays Southbound Commuters with computers at work and cell phones can check status and shift to alternatives like ride the VTA 522. Beats standing at the Palo Alto platform until the train fails to show.

    Bay Area still treats public transportation as a service for the poor – we’re not deserving so be grateful for what is provided.

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    Caltrain could have had real, useable, consumer-adequate real-time information, at near-zero (less than $1000/year, less than $1000 worth of hardware) years years ago. (Hell, by 2007 it could have been done with 30 GPS equipped consumer mobile phones just carried onto the train.)

    Caltrain could have contracted with Nextbus or a number of other vendors to have real-time information provided three years ago, at a cost of around half a million, but instead decided to reject all those bids.

    Instead Caltrain’s limitlessly stupid, limitless unprofessional staff chose instead to bundle this “advanced” functionality with their own roll-your-own “advanced” dispatching and control system, making it a $4.3 million dollar and NOT YET IMPLEMENTED contract add-on. 100% pure porky sleaze from America’s Finest Transportation Planning Professionals.

    Death really is too kind a fate.

    joe Reply:

    Death is the ranting of a mad man.

    We complain. We persist in complaining and offer specific problems.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    Deluge them with complaints, and then complain again about the poor excuse. This service is on the level of the LT&S out of London into Essex, a more or less self contained commuter system that in days of yore was typically given to a recent graduate of the management training program to run and gain experience before getting a real job. In new money that’s about $50,000 a year.

    joe Reply:

    We do. Specific problems and impact. Complain to the City rep for County service about the problems.

    Stanford system has its problems too with connections.

    I support the service, not the management.

    J. Wong Reply:

    So if the Giants aren’t doing as well next year will the ridership decrease year-over-year?

    Peter Reply:

    Can you imagine the Caltrain and BART ridership (once extended to Diridon) if the A’s move to San Jose?

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    I don’t know. It’s really hard to imagine such a thing. A not especially well-attended baseball team playing in a taxpayer-funded stadium near a BART station. Hmmm…..

    BTW the SJ Baseball stadium is completely incompatible with a useful passenger station at SJ Cahill Street.
    Any idiot can see that a portion — a portion! — of the parcel just south of the station building presently occupied by a power small substation is required for practical station expansion.

    But instead of, you know, doing any thinking, let’s give away all the needed ROW to white elephant baseball stadium. Because somebody else can pay to make up for that missing small slice of land by instead building three levels of trains, with an elevated passenger mezzanine! Ka-ching!

    Reedman Reply:

    FYI – construction of the new 49ers stadium in Santa Clara is going smoothly. Targeted for opening in fall of 2014. It will have convenient access from both VTA Light Rail and heavy rail (Great America Station). When BART to Berryessa/San Jose starts to operate (presently scheduled for 2016), BART riders will get on Light Rail in Milpitas. Senator Barbara Boxer recently visited the site of the planned Berryessa BART Station.

    Joey Reply:

    So … access to pathetic VTA light rail service and can-count-the-number-of-trains-per-day-on-one-hand ACE and Amtrak service?

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    You’re bat shit delusional.

    US football stadiums — with an annual use you can count in your fingers — are all about tailgates and parking.

    That was the case at Candlestick in nominally “transit oriented” San Francisco, it was the case for the proposed (and thank God unbuilt) replacement 49ers stadium parking-plex in SF, and it’s explicitly the reason for locating this latest taxpayer fleecing scam in transit-hostile Santa Clara about a billion miles from anything, right next to the parking lot wastelands of the office parks that are similarly located for similar reasons.

  6. joe
    Oct 3rd, 2012 at 15:32
    California’s High Speed Rail: Lessons from Asia

    8, November 2012
    5:30pm – 8:00pm
    K&L Gates, LLP, 4 Embarcadero Center, Suite 1200, San Francisco

    This program will look to models in Asia, such as Japan’s Shinkansen, as well as those in Korea and China to understand how high speed rail systems have impacted travel, business, and livability. Will such an undertaking in California bring about similar changes, or is it simply a waste of public funding? Please Join our expert panel for a discussion of these and other questions.

    Speakers include Rod Diridon, Executive Director, Mineta Transportation Institute, and Tian Feng, District Architect, SF Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART).

    Outreach Co-Sponsor: Mineta Transportation Institute

    Tags: Trolling, Alon, Synonymouse

    Alon Levy Reply:

    The title reminds me of the memo titled “Open Government” in the pilot of Yes, Minister.

  7. Alon Levy
    Oct 3rd, 2012 at 22:28

    Carmageddon is doomsday for pedestrians.

  8. Andy M
    Oct 4th, 2012 at 03:51

    Electric transit does not actually prevent road traffic or congestion. In fact, observation over the deacdes shws that traffic always increases to use the capacity that is provided for it. If you add lanes or roads, traffic will fill those roads. All you are doing by adding roads is opening up new outlying areas for commuting.

    Similarly, rail solutions attarct some traffic away from roads, but the freed up capacity baheves much as new capacity would, it just encourages further car use. The only way to prevent this is to actively destroy capacity by closing lanes or by London-style charging schemes.

    But the big advantage of rail is not that it reduces congestion, but that it reduces the dependence on roads and hence reduces the degree by which congestion can cripple the economy. The more people stop driving, the less significant the effects of congestion.

    So if you want clean air, rail in itselöf wopn’t get you that. You have to combine rail building with measures that discourage driving.

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