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. its just math says:

    I believe the reason for Angelenos having such a dependency on driving/why the public transit system is horrible – is because the vast size of the “city” of Los Angeles (as opposed to “condensed” cities like: NYC, SF, Seattle) makes it very difficult/inconvenient for some to travel…

    I want to see more done in terms making the biker and carpool friendly…

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  2. Chris says:

    Willie Cavecche,

    Metrolink is a joke comparatively speaking. It serves 47,600 passengers a day. The three agencies that serve NYC (LIRR, Metro North and NJ Transit Rail Operations) has a daily ridership of roughly 918,000 or about 19.5 times that of Metrolink.

    As far as city transit is concerned, MTA (LA) serves a total of 1.6 million riders a day. New York City Transit serves about 7 million.

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  3. Willie Cavecche says:

    Never said it was better than NYC’s public transit. You’re right, NYC probably woops NYC’s butt when it comes to mass transit. But that doesn’t mean that the LA system is bad, it just means that NYC’s is better and/or more people use it.

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  4. Ash says:

    Just wanted to register my objection to declaring this a “half-truth” when Los Angeles has the nation’s second-worst smog. Do we diagnose hypertension only in the patient with the highest blood pressure in the country?

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  5. david says:

    The smog cliches are boring. Has anyone seen LA in the 70s? Nowadays, it’s still noticeable but hardly “choking” the city. If you want to see real smog, go to Shanghai.

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  6. LisaNewton says:

    I recently did a post myself with two dramatic photo illustrating the difference between a smoggy day and an unsmoggy day, http://www.travelinlocal.com

    It has improved so much over the years.

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  7. bryan says:

    I recently moved to LA from New England…I hated NYC terribly and especially how everyone talked NYC up all the time like it was a godsend city; I did expect to see LA in this smoggy freeway clogged mess but it was so much better than anyone made it out to be. There are definitely smoggy days where coming from the 105 to the 110 you can barely see downtown (if at all)…but i never feel like i’m choked out of clean air. In NYC i feel like vomiting because everywhere you go it smells like garbage…ugh

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  8. Peter A. Lake says:

    After living 27 years in L.A. from 1968-1995 I believe I can say with some authority that Los Angeles is doomed.

    There’s a number of reasons but they all boil down to two main ones:
    1. Too many people.
    2. Too little water.

    Everything else such as high cost of living, gangs, fires, public service costs, intractable politics — they all can be traced to the two main reasons above, and those are not about to change for the better — just for the worse.

    The middle-class dream of a comfortable life in the sun has slowly been dying for decades.
    When all the orange trees were cut down in Orange County it was time to leave.

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