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?


Jeffrey

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.

Eric M. Jones

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.

Michael

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.

carlivar

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).

cirby

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.

Noah

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.

AH

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.

Ian

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

chuck

It seems #2 worst air quality in the US should qualify LA as "choked", shouldn't it?

Isn't Pittsburgh getting better now that there are no more heavy industries over there?

Zejn

Have you checked, did the standard change in the mean time?

Steven

The reason Pittsburgh is #1 on the unhealthy air list is due to all the fireworks and bus parades from winning the most Super Bowls; LA has not had that experience.

Cory

Try driving out to Pomona or Upland one summer afternoon. There will be more world-famous smog than you'd ever want to see.

MikeM

Second-highest pollution in the country, more than double the national standard for ozone, and you call "choked with pollution" a "half-truth."

Sorry, man, it's true. Maybe not as bad as the stereotypes make it sound, but it's still true.

boomka

# 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.

All of these are completely subjective. Everyone has their own definition of what is "inadequate" and "dominated" and "overbuild". As far as I care, mass transit system is inadequate in most American cities.

And even if it is not true that "Angelenos drive considerably more miles than most Americans" it has nothing to do with how easy it is to get around LA. If you forced everyone to live near work then nobody would have to drive a lot, but would it make easier to get to, say, a museum? Or visit a friend on the other side of the city?

KB

I know #4 is not true and #2 is too verbose to even consider unless LA is also not very dense. So, it must be #1 or #3 that is true.

I've only spent about one week in LA, but during that week I found it much much easier to use the freeway to get around than attempt the bus or rail, and I hate driving. I found the freeways to be very efficient and easy to navigate compared to other cities like Washington DC, New York, and Chicago. So, my bet is on #3. If the freeways hadn't been so great I would have used mass transit.

Dave of Maryland

First & last cliches, in one:

I was once stuck in traffic leaving Burbank airport. Four lanes motionless on my side, four lanes motionless on the other side.

The thought occurred to me that one No. 6 train could have accommodated every single driver & passenger in every car in sight, taken but one single lane to do so, and have been followed sixty seconds later by another No. 6, equally laden.

When I lived in New York I took subways everywhere. And at rush hour - and too many other hours, come to think of it - they were crammed. Awful.

On the other hand, about 6 pm one Friday evening, I once had the chance to drive from Manhattan to Brooklyn via the Brooklyn Bridge. To my amazement, it was empty of traffic.

Any New Yorkers care to comment?

Johnny E

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.

Joel

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.

Johnny E

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.

Chethan

"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.