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.