L.A.-Long Beach metro leads country in smog-related deaths

Despite advances, we know that California is not meeting the emission goals it has set forth statewide—and we have long known that the L.A.-Long Beach metro has consistently ranked as the worst in the state for years, with marginalized communities bearing the brunt of the effects of that pollution.

New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management has been measuring and comparing the air quality of metro areas across the country under its annual Health of the Air reports for several years. The point is simple: Though technological advances have dramatically increased our air quality over the past few decades, measuring air pollution over a smaller, more recent time period will give us a better idea as how close we are to reaching our clean air goals.

The research

Comparing 2010 to 2017

This year’s report has shown that, while nationwide deaths due to smog have decreased, the L.A.-Long Beach metro has seen an increase in deaths related to ozone (O3) emissions. If paired with the second-worst area in the nation in terms of pollution, the Riverside-San Bernardino metro, these two areas are responsible for 89% of pollution-related deaths in California.

On top of this, L.A.-Long Beach ranks the worst in the nation in regard to both ozone and particulate matter (PM2.5) levels meaning we will have to work the hardest to the levels of air quality that are deemed accepted by the American Thoracic Society.

While we have decreased PM2.5 and O3 levels, each have remained relatively stagnate over the past decade while the reporting of “bad air” days has increased across the entirety of Southern California. In Riverside-San Bernardino, they reported over 100 bad air days in 2017, levels not achieved since the 1990s.

The reason

SoCal isn’t keeping up with state-set standards

The heavy hitters when it comes to pollution, outside of industrial work like coal mining, are various forms of transportation, from cars and trucks to ships and airplanes.

In response to this, once climate change became a political focal point in the 1990s, California legislators rolled out a massive onslaught of bills and policies which sought to dramatically decrease emissions and improve air quality. Attached to these bills were goals by decade: The state pledged to meet certain decreases at certain times; this level by 2000, that level by 2010, this level by 2020…

While much was been said about making transportation, especially cars and trucks, cleaner and more efficient, very little was said about why people drive so much or for such great distances on such a regular basis. With a severe housing decrease—particularly affordable housing in transit-rich areas—those displaced from urban centers have become much more likely to buy a vehicle to get to and from work.

This, in turn, has brought a second wave of aggressive legislation that focuses on creating housing near transit, what is called transit-oriented housing, in order to meet a new slew of climate change goals. The state has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. In addition, over the past decade, it created a first-of-its-kind law, SB 375, the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008.

SoCal is not keeping up with these state standards—we will not meet our 2030 goals, according to the California Air Resources Board—and, as President Trump increases his efforts to roll back emissions standards that California relies on to reduce pollution from cars and trucks, it is unlikely SoCal will even approach the goal unless dramatic steps are taken.

What needs to be done

Dramatic measures with dramatic steps

Fully ambulatory Californians will have to walk, bike and use mass transit much more. Much, much more. Climate experts say able-bodied Californians will have to walk by foot four times as much as they do now, and will have to bike nine times as much if we are to meet our emission goals.

In other words, according to this research, a reduction in the growth of single-occupancy vehicle travel is essential if we are to achieve an emission level that is 40 percent below those of 1990  by 2030. Tack onto this Gov. Jerry Brown’s new carbon neutrality goal, which the state hopes to achieve by 2045, and the habits of residents who use their car for everything becomes paramount.

This is not just about long, daily commutes to work, the type of trip perceived as “essential,” since 46 percent of all passenger car trips are under three miles. And it’s not about gas versus electric vehicles since, according to the report, even if zero-emission car sales increased tenfold, the state would still have to reduce the miles traveled by cars by 25 percent in order to meet the 2030 goal.

We have to significantly alter the culture with which we approach housing, transit and accessibility.

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Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 16 nominations and two additional wins for Best Political Commentary for his work at KCET and Best Blog for Longbeachize, a section of the Long Beach Post. Brian currently serves as a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post.
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