Carmageddon Was Doomsday for SoCal Smog
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.
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?!