On Earth Day: Overpopulation, Traffic and Toxins

Published on April 22nd, 2013

Aside from the time traffic jams provide to reflect on one’s day, there’s little benefit to the Bay Area’s current transportation mess. Getting from one place to another is an inevitable part of our daily routines of work, errands, and recreation. However, this basic aspect of modern life poses an increasingly insurmountable challenge because of population growth.

Unfortunately the Bay’s gridlock traffic is more than just an inconvenience, it’s unhealthy. Automobiles ever growing will continue to be intimately tied to the region’s further development, and can be expected to adversely impact air quality. Increased traffic means more polluted air which is well known to exacerbate respiratory illness and even elevate the risk for certain cancers. In the Earth Day spirit, this fundamental tradeoff between declining environmental health and unchecked growth must be addressed.

Among air pollutants, particulate matter stands out as a particularly harmful byproduct coming from car and truck tailpipes. Particulate matter consists of microscopic particles that are commonly illustrated as being 95 percent smaller than the width of a human hair. These fine particulates can penetrate deep into the lungs and then circulate through the bodies of people exposed to traffic exhaust which results in negative short and long term impacts.

Immediate concerns over asthma attacks and bronchitis can give way to serious life-threatening conditions ranging from lung cancers and cardiovascular disease, to reduced brain function and premature death from chronic disease. As the Bay Area News Group points out, already six of California’s ten worst zip codes for childhood asthma hospitalization are in the Oakland and Emeryville. [Pollution Takes Heavy Toll on Bay Area Children with Asthma, by Katy Murphy, Oakland Tribune, February 14, 2013]

Additionally, sulfur dioxide (another known respiratory irritant), nitrogen oxides (contributor to harmful ground-level ozone formation), and other toxic compounds linked to cancer are typical traffic exhaust compounds. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that cars and trucks’ toxic tailpipe emissions account for more than half of all air pollution related cancers.

Accurately forecasting population growth is a complicated science that takes many factors into account. Some estimate the Bay Area will add another 2.1 million inhabitants by 2040, an astonishing 30 percent population increase from 2010. While projections fluctuate, especially with economic conditions, all foresee more population growth.

The Association of Bay Area Governments, as well as individual city planners for San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and other regional municipal governments, should take actions to ensure breathable, minimally polluted air. Regrettably, their response to growth pressures is to mandate new housing along with other measures that will create more traffic gridlock and further jeapardize public health.

Elizabeth Deakin, a UC Berkeley Professor of City and Regional Planning, says that traffic management tools could ease the region’s congestion by 5 percent. Although this may seem like an insignificant change, Deakin explains that in practice it means the difference between stop-and-go traffic and free flowing vehicles. If this extremely delicate balance between current congestion conditions and traffic sensitivity holds true, then we have a lot to worry about as the region eventually expands by as much as 30 percent.

California’s Bay Area is internationally recognized for its high quality of life, unique character, and commitment to healthy lifestyles. To preserve this image for future generations, we need to ask more important questions than “How much more can we expand the region?” or “How can we best mitigate growth’s damage on the public?”

Our municipal planners should, for the sake of California's public health, seriously consider whether the Bay Area needs more growth in the first place.

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