Los Angelenos who drive less are exposed to more air pollution, as commuters from predominantly white neighborhoods travel through non-white areas. That’s according to new research co-authored by Geoff Boeing, assistant professor of Urban Planning and Spatial Analysis at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy.
Those findings, recently published in Urban Studies, demonstrate how decades of racist planning decisions have contributed to a vehicle pollution paradox.
Twentieth-century planners bulldozed urban areas to build freeways for suburban residents to drive to job centers. Although whiter and wealthier areas like Beverly Hills successfully blocked such projects, similar opposition efforts failed in less-white and less-wealthy parts of L.A., such as Boyle Heights, which was carved up by five freeways and two enormous interchanges.
Those decisions reverberate today, allowing Los Angeles residents who travel the most to be exposed to less air pollution, Boeing and his colleagues found. They modeled local exposure to vehicular air pollution as a function of vehicle kilometers traveled, using demographic, household travel, street network design and air pollution data.
The study concluded that:
Boeing noted that previous research showed that communities of color tend to be exposed to more air pollution. However, earlier studies often focused on their proximity to pollution sources but didn’t control for how much pollution those communities were generating themselves. For this study, Boeing sought to measure emissions from mobile sources — vehicles — and control for how much pollution was generated by the communities he examined.
The results — that the more L.A. residents drive, the less they’re exposed to air pollution — were “superficially surprising,” Boeing said. “But given what we know about L.A. geography, we expect to find this kind of injustice in the city. You get these paradoxes of unfairness.”
The study’s authors, including USC Price School PhD candidate Clemens Pilgram and USC Price School graduate Yougeng Lu, proposed a handful of policy fixes. None of them can single-handedly undo decades of systematic urban planning, Boeing noted. Still, some possible solutions are:
The research findings are similar to other stories of environmental injustice, Boeing said. “The story is, basically, that people with more privilege and more wealth are usually able to export their pollution into other communities.”