Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2004

Traffic efforts stalled
By Lisa Mascaro and Kerry Cavanaugh, Staff Writers

More roads, mass transit are needed

Los Angeles gets mostly failing grades in its efforts to relieve gridlock because it has not invested enough in new roads and mass transit or started charging drivers fees for using the most congested routes, according to a UCLA report being released today.

At the same time, researchers found that just sitting behind the wheel in jammed traffic poses serious health risks as drivers breathe air that's been polluted by diesel exhaust and tiny particles, and carries risks of potentially deadly health problems.

The seventh annual Southern California Environmental Report Card takes stock of the region's environment, giving mixed grades for air and water quality and illegal trash dumping. But traffic congestion emerged as the key source of many of Los Angeles' environmental woes.

"As a region, we have yet to come to grips with the immense impacts our transportation system is having on the environment and public health," Mary D. Nicols, director of UCLA's Institute of the Environment, wrote in the report's forward.

"Whether it's the piles of used tires on Indian lands, or the pollutant-loaded road dust washing into the creeks and storm drains and out onto the beaches, or the exhaust that is assaulting our lungs as we sit in traffic with the windows rolled up and the air conditioner on, we can't seem to break out of the trap of dependence on petroleum-fueled vehicles."

Regional transportation leaders concurred with most of the findings and said the report summarizes the difficult tasks they face in trying to ease gridlock.

"It's years before we finally get a handle on this," said Frank Roberts, chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board.

"The average Southern Californian, I don't care where they are ... they love their motorcars," said Roberts, who also is the mayor of Lancaster and occasionally takes the Metrolink train to Los Angeles. "That's a hard thing to give up."

But transit advocate Bart Reed said it's only a matter of time before the public comes to grips with the wide-ranging effects of gridlock -- much like the enormous social shift that turned the public against smoking.

"Years ago, people said smoking's bad for you, then finally after five to 10 years it dawned on everybody -- smoking's dangerous -- instead of just a myth," said Reed, executive director of The Transit Coalition and also a member of the Sierra Club, which put out a study earlier this year detailing highway health hazards.

The University of California, Los Angeles, report found that adult Angelenos get the bulk of their exposure to diesel pollution in their cars, while children get a big dose of black carbon while riding school buses.

Researchers found that diesel particulate levels were 18 times higher when a car drives behind a diesel-fueled bus than if it tails the average gas-powered car.

Diesel exhaust is believed to be the leading source of cancer risk from air pollution in Southern California.

"I never drive behind a diesel vehicle if I can avoid it," said report author Arthur M. Winer, a professor of environmental health sciences at UCLA's School of Public Health.

The report also recounts recent research about the dangers of ultrafine particles that are formed by vehicle exhaust. Because they are so small, they can penetrate lung tissue, cells and cross the blood barrier into the brain.

More so than smog, researchers have linked high levels of these microscopic particles to increased illness and death.

The report gave researchers a B-plus for their cutting-edge research -- driving cars and buses filled with sampling equipment and enlisting volunteers to wear backpacks with portable air-sampling systems to measure pollution around the nose and mouth.

But fixing the traffic nightmare is no easy job and requires strong leadership and a multipronged strategy of more roads, more transit and smart-growth decisions on land use, the report said.

"It took us a long time to create the problem we have, so there's no quick and immediate solution," said professor Paul Ong, director of UCLA's Ralph and Goldy Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, who contributed to the report.

Southern California's population has spiked 44 percent over the past 20 years and the vehicle miles traveled have doubled, the report said. The economy is the 10th largest in the world.

But road and highway capacity grew just 20 percent during that time, and the resulting traffic jams led to more bad-air days than anywhere else in the nation.

The report stresses the need for more bus service rather than costly train lines -- and the researchers welcomed busways like the Orange Line being built across the San Fernando Valley as a cost-effective improvement.

Researchers also pointed to the need for more roads and singled out toll roads or rush-hour fees as a quick solution that, though initially unpopular, would provide drivers with some relief.

They said "smart growth" -- building homes near jobs and services -- could help minimize car trips, but isn't a catch-all solution.

Ultimately, they said, there needs to be greater education about the high costs of driving, creating a public awareness that can help politicians make the difficult decisions needed to bring about improvements.

"Maybe the way we think about it is, in the past we've overprivileged the car," said Ong, adding that he, too, drives and has a two-car household.

"It's not that I'm anti-car," he said. "It's just that as public policy we've privileged the car."

-- Lisa Mascaro, (818) 713-3761

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