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. Johnny E says:

    Actually one of the biggest problems is the pollution from all those big diesel-powered container ships in Los Angeles Harbor. There are basically no pollution control devices on them. Los Angeles has little regulatory authority over foreign-flagged ships. There has been talk of requiring them to shut-down while in port and plug into shore power but it probably hasn’t happened yet. Satellite photos over the oceans show huge plumes of pollution following these ships which is having an effect on our climate and solar energy reaching the earth’s surface.

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  2. Joel says:

    Let’s hear about the mass transit issue! I have a friend who lives and dies by LA’s mass transit, but I’d be curious to see what the actual numbers are comparing it to NYC, Chicago, or Houston.

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  3. Johnny E says:

    I was stuck in rush-hour traffic in Houston about 25 years ago. From the NW there was this huge scary dark cloud approaching. It was reminiscent of Dust Bowl photos of sandstorms starting at ground level. It couldn’t be from a refinery fire, they were in the opposite direction. It turned out just to be a smog cloud caused by vehicles. People that were under it probably needed to use their headlights.

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  4. Chethan says:

    “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.”

    It’s hard to read this column as factual when it’s written in such a defensive, retaliatory tone. I don’t doubt the ideas being presented, but in the same token, I’ve lived in several cities, including Los Angeles, and it has been (by far) the one I most hated trying to get around in. I wish this column was written less from a whiny, “you guys should stop bashing LA” standpoint, and just presented the facts. LA faces criticism of its transportation from without and from within.

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  5. Bill says:

    I don’t think you busted a myth nor are you on your way to setting aside others. Maybe you can add to your list:

    -All Angelenos are flakes
    -All Angelenos are shallow and obsessed with looking good

    Best of luck.

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  6. PETE DIXON says:

    Yet another smog apologist.. I did not read about the heavy metals in smog such a mercury. A mature society, one not dominate by business bias would have solved the problem 50 years ago.


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  7. John, Boston says:

    I miss California. The parks are great. Even deserts need parks…

    The sun out there feels like it has gone through a factory of some sort. Almost like a magnifying glass. Florida’s sun feels hotter, but the feeling is more direct and vicious than in LA.

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  8. Mark says:

    Too many people, period. This is not natural but a plague caused by ignorance and greed. We know how it always ends — one or all four horsemen of the apocalypse. Look around, it’s already happening.

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