Building homes near freeways

The White House wants to roll back fuel economy standards. Could that mean more air pollutants coming out of car tailpipes -- just as LA is seeing a surge of home construction along freeways?

Last week, President Trump called for a review of the Obama administration’s CAFE standards. Those are the mandated gas mileage levels set for cars and light trucks in the United States.

Might this policy change affect California in ways that go beyond Tesla’s bottom line?

“What happened is an announcement that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will be reevaluating shelving Obama administration-era standards on fuel economy that affect cars and trucks,” said Tony Barboza, who covers air quality and the environment at the Los Angeles Times. “These are standards that go through 2025 and would require pretty big increases in fuel economy, up to about 54 miles per gallon by that year.”

The EPA’s new administrator Scott Pruitt has cited cost as part of the decision, saying these standards are costly for automakers and the American people. These costs, of course, have to be weighed against the benefits of cleaner air and the jobs created under the burgeoning electric car industry, Barboza said.

“There’s a sense that retreating on these rules would give a disincentive to that trend, which is of course very important here in California, where you’ve had a state government that has really pushed for greater electrification of vehicles,” he said.

Southern California has a long history of trying to clean up air pollution, dating back to the 1940s. Last year a study found that Southern California led the nation in air quality deaths.

Planners are confident enough in improvements to air quality, though, that they are allowing a surge of construction of homes close to freeways.

Tony Barboza and his LA Times co-author reported on the trend, writing that “California air regulators… say air quality along freeways will continue to improve as the state transitions to cleaner vehicles and fuels.” They also cited Mayor Eric Garcetti, stating that he did not want to limit this construction and that “improving air-filtration, building design and tailpipe emissions are a better way to reduce risks to residents.”

A typical LA traffic jam. (Photo by Prayitno Hadinata)

But what happens to this vision if CAFE standards are rolled back?

If the auto industry is not pressured to produce cleaner cars, does that mean more cars spewing more dirty air?

Because of an increase in car and truck use, “a lot more carbon dioxide is being emitted into the atmosphere along with carbon monoxide. There’s also particular matters, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxide, all kinds of air pollutants that will go with carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and those contribute to air pollution and contribute to adverse health effects,” said Yifang Zhu, a professor at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and an expert in ultrafine particle emissions. She’s opposed to putting homes near freeways even now, saying tailpipes emit a toxic stew.

The LA Times reports that while there has been a decline in tail pipe emissions, there is an increase in the population living around high traffic areas.

“So what we found is that the city is building an increasing amount of housing. In the city of Los Angeles alone you had over 4,000 homes built in 2015 close to freeways, and another 3,000 last year. And the idea for concern here is that you’ve got an increased population in a known polluted zone and the tailpipe emissions are not declining fast enough.”

Los Angeles is now seeing an increase in density around transit corridors, with the assumption that air quality will improve in the future. If CAFE standards are rolled back and cars are allowed to continue at higher levels of pollution, this would mean more people breathing in dirty air and suffering the health consequences.