Boyonabike!

Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the tag “air quality”

Cars and “Freedom”

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Any casual glance at television in the United States brings a reminder from the oil and auto industries that cars equal “freedom.”  Usually it’s a subtle, implicit association, showing images of smiling drivers on an open road, usually along the coast, a beautiful mountain road, or other open space.  Watching these ads you’re not supposed to remember that cars bring with them sprawl, and sprawl destroys those open spaces and those uncongested roads the viewer is so nostalgic for.

Other times the association between freedom and cars is more explicit, as in Dodge’s use of a George Washington lookalike to suggest cars helped win America’s independence from the British [see above].  Another entry into this over-the-top category is country singer Tim McGraw’s recent commercial for an oil company in which he comes as close as a person can to actually making love to his car and refers to cars, with complete lack of irony, as “living, breathing organisms.”  The commercial shows the all-American image of McGraw driving a Jeep along a dirt road by a placid lake, while his voiceover calls cars the very embodiment of “American freedom.”  The ad, titled “Tim McGraw Freedom,” actually ends with McGraw holding a quart of engine oil, looking into the camera saying “long love cars.”

If there was even a hint of irony there, it would be hilarious, but Madison Avenue is not known for irony when it comes to cars.  I think here of the Mercedes ads of the 1990s and 2000s that used Janis Joplin’s anti-consumerist song “Mercedes Benz” as a completely unironic soundtrack.  Joplin’s song was originally recorded just days before her death and she intended it to be a reminder that material goods don’t bring happiness, despite what the admen and women try to sell us.  The wonder is that anyone with half a brain could listen to that song and think it was appropriate as a jingle for a car commercial.

So far as I know, no one has studied the specific cultural impact of the pervasive and unending barrage of images equating cars with freedom in our society, not to mention the economic impact of all those ads on media coverage of issues related to the automobile, the environment, and public health.  It would not surprise me at all if the effect of all this repetitive automobile propaganda on the collective psyche and the media was profound.

Juxtaposed with these images is a recent study I came across this morning, concluding that air quality near freeways may be worse than previously thought.  The study, by researchers at UCLA and the California Air Resources Board, found unhealthful levels of air pollution within a mile of freeways in the hours between 4:30 and 6:30 am.  People living a mile downwind of a freeway are thus exposed to unhealthful levels of particle pollution, nitric oxide, and hydrocarbons during these hours, all of which have been shown to contribute to asthma, heart disease, and other health problems.  The study is yet another in the already large body of scientific evidence showing the price we pay for our addiction to cars.

Because of these health dangers, the L.A. Times noted, the report urged people who live near freeways to

keep your windows closed in the hours just before sunrise.  Use air conditioning.  Install HEPA air filters.  Postpone outdoor exercise until later in the morning or exercise farther away from the highway.

Yup, shut yourself up in your house, close the windows, and don’t go outside to exercise.  That’s American Freedom for ya.

Long Love Cars.

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More Carmageddon?

Associated Press photo, Carmageddon 2011.

Could Carmageddon be good for us?  When a stretch of the always-gridlocked 405 freeway was closed for one weekend in July 2011, it spawned apocalyptic visions of L.A. drivers stranded in a sea of idling cars.  But, a funny thing happened.  Lots of people—especially on the Westside—didn’t drive that weekend.  They stayed near home.  They walked.  They rode their bikes.  They took transit.  In the end, traffic on the Westside was almost eerily light that weekend.

Now, a new study shows that keeping all those cars garaged had an astoundingly positive impact on air quality.  A research team at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability found that the L.A. basin experienced “a dramatic reduction” in air pollution the weekend of Carmageddon I.  The study found that there was a 25% reduction in pollutants across the entire basin compared to a “normal” weekend.  On the Westside, air quality was 75% better than normal and, in the neighborhoods near the 10-mile stretch of the 405 closed for the weekend, air quality was a whopping 83% better than a typical weekend.

Public health researchers have long known that exposure to air pollution from cars and trucks causes a host of health problems, including asthma, heart attacks, strokes, premature births, and other problems.  The closer one lives to a freeway, the more one is exposed to these pollutants, and the higher these rates of disease become.  These increased health risks, in turn, cost billions of dollars in health care-related expenses and lost productivity every year.

Now, here’s a modest proposal:  instead of spending billions of dollars to widen freeways to accommodate more cars (the purpose of the 405 closure), why don’t we use that money for expanding light rail, bus service, bike paths and bike lanes in the L.A. basin?  Why don’t we also factor in the health costs associated with air pollution into the gasoline tax, and use that money to help pay for health care?  We’re already paying those costs, we just don’t do enough to reduce our car addiction—the very thing that causes them.

 

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