Los Angeles Transportation Facts and Fiction: Smog

INSERT DESCRIPTIONJamie Rector for The New York Times Los Angeles

As part of an ongoing quiz about transportation in Los Angeles, in the last post I challenged the notion that the city is sprawling. But sprawl or no, Los Angeles’s air is choked with its world-famous smog. Isn’t it?

Answer: A half-truth.

Facts and Fiction

Eric Morris discusses stereotypes about Los Angeles transportation in this six-part series.

Thanks to clear and sunny skies, warm temperatures, stable air, and an onshore sea-breeze, the Los Angeles area is an outstanding natural smog cooker.

Indeed, air pollution in the region long predates the arrival of the automobile. In 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European to lay eyes on Santa Monica Bay, saw the area shrouded in smog from native campfires and named it the Bay of Smoke.

Now, 450 years later, no one is rushing to rechristen it the Bay of Healthfulness. Each year, Los Angeles violates the national air-quality standards for ozone by a factor of more than two. Moreover, Los Angeles has serious problems with fine particles (PM2.5). This is especially true near the city’s ports, where thousands of trucks spew diesel exhaust that we Angelenos breathe so that those of you in the rest of the nation can enjoy the imports from Asia that underpin your standard of living.

But while the situation is far from ideal, the numbers from the California Air Resources Board make it clear that Los Angeles has come a remarkably long way toward cleaning up the air.

In 1979, the South Coast Air Basin (of which Los Angeles is a part) experienced 228 days above the state one-hour ozone standard; in 2007, the number of days in violation was down to 96. The change is even more dramatic when looking at individual communities. From 1979 to 2007, Pasadena dropped from 191 days over the limit to 13, Reseda from 138 to 22, Anaheim from 61 to 2, Pomona from 167 to 19, and West Los Angeles from 76 to 2. This story is replicated across the region. It is also broadly true for the other pollutants that comprise smog.

The cleanup has not come due to reduced population or driving (both of these have risen rapidly in past decades), but to technological solutions: catalytic converters, unleaded gasoline, smog checks, etc.

According to the American Lung Association, Los Angeles doesn’t even have the worst air quality in the nation any more — sorry, Pittsburgh. Second place is hardly a badge of honor for Los Angeles, but things have definitely been moving in the right direction.

So the air is not great, but it is vastly better — hence the designation of this stereotype as a half-truth.

Four cliches to go:

  • Los Angeles’s mass transit system is underdeveloped and inadequate.
  • Thanks to the great distances between far-flung destinations, and perhaps to Angelenos’ famed “love affair” with the car, Angelenos drive considerably more miles than most Americans.
  • Los Angeles is dominated by an overbuilt freeway system that promotes autodependence.
  • Angelenos spend more time stuck in traffic than any other drivers in the nation.

Your pick?

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  1. Jeffrey says:

    Tell us about freeways. One of my favorite past times is throwing up a little in my mouth when I see video of LA’s 7-lanes-in-each-direction behemoths.

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  2. Eric M. Jones says:

    In the mid 1960’s the smog was truly devastating. Lucky for me, I smoked Marlboros heavily in the years of the worst smog. When the smog got better I quit smoking. Just a coincidence though.

    Normally the sea-breeze is onshore during the day, at night the breeze reverses. This causes some very weird problems in times of high smog and near-zero-humidity Santa Ana winds.

    I could hear machine-gun fire out my bedroom window, the hills were on fire, the smog was almost lethal, the earthquakes, mudslides, searing heat and traffic. Ahhh, I loved it.

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  3. Michael says:

    I’m from LA, and the cliche about LA having underdeveloped mass transit is completely true. It’s getting better, but when the Subway to the Sea seems like it’ll finally get built around the time my grandkids are adults, the stereotype is still true.

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  4. carlivar says:

    I’d like to hear about mass transit. I don’t know how any light rail that doesn’t make it to the massive airport can be considered “adequate”. Or the ridiculous “Orange Line” Bus where they should have built a train (Valley always loses). Or the various single-track portions of Metrolink routes that make trains have to stop on siding (or crash into other trains).

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  5. cirby says:

    In the early 1980s, I lived in Victorville, east of LA in the Mojave Desert.

    On clear days, you could see the smog spilling over the mountains. Horrible, brownish-red clouds of crap.

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  6. Noah says:

    I think the big takeaway here is that through technological innovation and policy control you CAN have an enormous impact on the environment in relatively short periods of time. Tell this to everyone who says that eco-friendly government policies are pointless.

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  7. AH says:

    And what large city in America doesn’t have similar freeways? It certainly wouldn’t be San Diego, San Francisco, or Las Vegas, all within 300 miles of Los Angeles. Seattle? Denver? Chicago? Washington D.C.? New York? New Jersey? You must be throwing up an awful lot, I guess you don’t travel much. I suppose in the sticks there are no freeways, but once you get a million people, you’re stuck with them. “The Little House” makes me sad too, but I’m not sure what you can do about it.

    So, Los Angeles has a lot of traffic but I know the answer to the “time spent in a car” question. There are plenty of places with bad traffic, plenty of places with nice mass transit, and plenty of places with bad traffic and world-class mass transit. Los Angeles gets kicked while it is down for no reason other than cliche.

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  8. Ian says:

    A quick check of their website tells me that the transit system is better than that of many American cities.

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