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?


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.


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.


John, Boston

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.


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.


The most glaring and common myth is "You need a car to live in Los Angeles". As a bicycle-riding Angeleno who has never owned a car, I know this to be false.
Since that's not on the list, I will choose "L.A.'s mass transit system is underdeveloped and inadequate". I think there's some truth in that statement.


Isn't it a little late to be writing these pro-auto articles? The American auto industry is dead. Unless you're sponsored by Toyota or something you can give it a rest man. It's over.


You know, I have to agree with those above and say that this should have been "True, but getting better." #2 worst air in the country does not disprove the stereotype about bad air quality - it confirms it. Maybe fewer days have horrible air quality, but there's still like 1/4 of the year that you should probably not be inhaling. Credit should be given for the improvement (and for the natural circumstances which make the problem worse than, say, Chicago), but there is still a lot of work to do.


Pittsburgh air is not filled with diesel exhaust or industrial output.
It's natural smog factor is also very bad, in the river valleys, and it's overcast (and relatively humid) about 200 days a year.
It seems as if it has more of the natural smog excuse than LA.
I know a lot of people who live in the Pittsburgh and none of them would consider the air quality to be choking them with unnatural smoke. I don't know if the people in LA do either of course, as I know only a couple, and they don't think it's too bad.


Let's go with the mass transit system. I get around just fine in LA without a car.

The heart of any mass transit system is the BUS. LA has an impressive amount of nice, clean CNG-powered buses. Fares are low--$1.35 for metro and 75 cents for Santa Monica/Culver City (but it's been a fight to keep them that way). Schedules are good, although I'd always be happy to welcome more frequent service and far-reaching lines. The only missing piece is bus-only lanes, which are coming soon.


How about the traffic issue? I think Los Angeles traffic really is worse than anywhere else I've ever lived. I live in San Diego now, which is also highway-heavy. It would be neat to compare my perception with your findings.


EPA's standard for ozone, the central component of smog, tightened earlier in this decade. That makes the drop in days of violation even more significant. At the same time, as we learn more and more about ozone, we find out that even low levels of smog are dangerous. There even seems to be evidence that ozone exposure shortens human life. So concern about smog is very appropriate. The fact that L.A. has improved says it's come a long way -- but it's still got a long way to go.

Incidentally, I'm surprised at the statement or at least the inference that Pittsburgh is now the worst. I don't think that's true, especially as heavy industry has left the area.

I'll be interested to see what this column says about mass transit. The problem here is that one needs centrality of residences and of jobs to generate the levels of ridership needed to sustain mass transit. Los Angeles is a tough place to find that. So too are all cities; job growth is not in the central city, but rather in the suburbs at the fringe. It is hard to support a mass transit line between suburbs.



I've lived in the Los Angeles area for almost 35 years. I love California, but in L.A., we have a place of spectacular natural beauty reduced to a barren wasteland of cars, concrete, and crud. The place should be leveled. Open up some dams and let the L.A. River flood the whole basin. Just start over.


"According to the American Lung Association, Los Angeles doesn't even have the worst air quality in the nation any more - sorry, Pittsburgh."

To be fair to Pittsburgh, the report by the ALA doesn't account for a rather large outlier.

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

'Guillermo Cole, an Allegheny County Health Department spokesman, said Pittsburgh doesn't deserve the ranking, which hangs on high soot readings in the Monongahela River Valley caused by emissions from U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works.

"Where the soot levels are high in the Clairton area, we're concerned. But it's a localized issue and the problem area is very small," said Mr. Cole, noting that 25,000 people live in the Liberty-Clairton area, which includes Glassport, Port Vue and Lincoln, while 1.2 million reside in Allegheny County and 2.5 million live in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area.

"The fact of the matter is that the ranking only applies accurately to the Liberty-Clairton area, and Pittsburgh, the rest of the county and the surrounding counties have much better air," Mr. Cole said. "Liberty-Clairton is a unique situation. We have a large source, the coke works, sitting in a river valley, so it's a real challenge. There's no other area of the U.S. like that."'


I live in Pittsburgh, and while I cannot compare it to Los Angeles, I can confidently state that Pittsburgh has for many years now not deserved the epithet of 'The Smoky City.'



Sadly, the Pittsburgh pollution comes not from Pittsburgh, but from lingering Rust Belt industry and coal power plants to the west and into Ohio and Michigan. The Lake Effect air sweeps right on down across Pittsburgh, which has no heavy industry left to speak of -- it's all robotics and biotech these days.

Sad. (The pollution, not the robots).

Michael Ducey

The fact that smog has declined due to technological fixes doesn't contradict any of the four cliches. They may be wrong, I don't know. These are not things that can't be known you just don't give any info on them. It is likely that if any of the four were different there would also probably be less smog.

mhead, St. Paul

Take the total motor vehicles in LA, multiply by $6000, and you have a very conservative estimate of the money thrown into mostly private-sector rolling stock each year by Angelinos. With that kind of wealth available for cars, the overriding question is, why hasn't LA constructed a massive mass transit system using tolls to fund it? Actually, every major city in the U.S. has obscene levels of wealth tied up in motor vehicles. Time to unlock that wealth, and put it to work building mass transit!


I currently live in LA (6 years) and I've also lived in NYC (Manhattan) 8 years ago and interestingly enough, New York was noticeably worse in air quality both visually and physiologically. The smog in Los Angeles is only truly an issue in the "Valley" (San Fernando) and Inland Empire (east of downtown well into the San Bernadino Valley) chiefly because of the geography of these areas but the LA basin itself, which is where over 60% of the actual "city" of LA resides maintains good to excellent levels of air quality year round. While statistics, as in the author's other categories, are misleading because cities are rightly or wrongly grouped within various conflicting definitions of metropolitan areas, I would contend that within the actual city limits themselves, NYC has poorer air quality than LA (personal empirical experience only as evidence). I think what always disturbs me (and I think this may be the overarching point of the author) is not that all of these cliches/stereotypes about Los Angeles are either no longer true or were never true (*some are indeed true) but that other non-Angelenos look with disdain while their cities are as bad or worse in respects to quality of life and seek to tweak the stats to make them feel less responsible or incorrectly more secure about their own civic hypocrisy. LA (metro area of roughly 12-16 million) is less dirty than Pittsburgh per capita (with a metro area of only about 2.5 million), Toronto has the largest freeway in North America (10 lanes each way so dude- throw up to your heart's content), it sprawls densely like Tokyo but unlike Phoenix or Jacksonville, FL (but it does sprawl), it has an extensive mass transit system (mainly buses) but is unfortunately not commensurate with its scale, has the worst traffic in the US (but not much worse than Houston, San Francisco, or Boston- metro areas half the population size), and it does in fact have the largest freeway network of any city in the world and a deeply rooted car culture which has reached critical mass- yet, still has incredibly pedestrian friendly pockets such as Santa Monica, Venice, and West Hollywood. Maybe the bigger question is not "does LA actually have these things?" but "are these things actually bad and why?".



I can speak for Pittsburgh... The way this report works is that it takes the worst reading of air quality in the area. For Pittsburgh, the worst air report was based only on data from one of the county's 20 air-quality monitors -- the one downwind of the Clairton Works coke-production plant, where very few people actually live! The coke works is located in a river valley, where weather changes can trap pollution in the low-lying areas. The whole region and city gets a black eye that it really doesn't deserve. Having lived there and spent time in LA, you can notice a significant difference - Pittsburgh is MUCH MUCH cleaner.

Chris Fuhrman

When I played college football in Inland Southern California in the 1980s, we had to run before 7 a.m. and at night to avoid the worst of the late-summer smog. The AQMD led the charge for change, and technology has played a part as well. Sure, there are poor air days inland, but the destructive smog of a generation ago has largely gone from the Los Angeles area.


Saying that "`it's better' and `Pittsburgh is worse' makes `LA is choked with smog' a half-truth" is like saying that "`Yao Ming is taller' makes `Dirk_Nowitzki is tall' a half-truth."

Along that same line, the comment that
"...the transit system is better than that of many American cities." isn't evidence for an adequate mass-transit system.
I'd have to agree with boomka that "... mass transit system is inadequate in most American cities."