Driving Toward Justice: The Public Health Case for Clean Cars

Jon Conway, PhD

Date: 03/11/2022

More than fifty years ago, the skies over Los Angeles were dark.

Choking clouds of smog spewed out of the millions of cars crisscrossing the city’s roads and highways. Visibility at the time could be fewer than three blocks. This man-made disaster took such a toll on public health that California leaders enacted the strongest vehicle pollution standards in our nation’s history. Their actions pre-dated the passage of the federal Clean Air Act in 1970, and established California’s role as a national environmental leader

In 2022, the skies may look clearer, but an invisible cloud of harmful pollutants still lingers around heavily-trafficked, and, all too often, predominantly low-income or non-white neighborhoods and regions. We often talk about getting fossil-fuel powered vehicles off the road in order to reduce harmful GHG emissions and mitigate climate change. But there’s more to it. Tailpipe emissions are not only warming our planet, they’re causing serious health problems and leading to the premature deaths of approximately 7,000 Californians per year.

Let’s look at the San Joaquin Valley as an example. The region is more than 50% Hispanic/Latinx and includes some of the poorest counties in the US; it also has some of the highest levels of toxic air pollution in the country. Lingering illnesses like heart and lung disease and premature death have created an intergenerational albatross around the necks of these and other marginalized communities across the state. This is the definition of environmental injustice.

The gasoline and diesel fuels that power most of our cars and trucks today are complicated mixtures of long hydrocarbon chains and other compounds that, when burned, release gasses like nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide, and, of course, carbon dioxide, as well as tiny particles of soot that are classified by their size. These particulates are most dangerous to human health when they are very small (under 2.5 microns, or about 25 times smaller than the width of a human hair) and can get deep into the nooks and crannies of your lungs to cause serious health problems.

Breathing in the various pollutants that come out of our tailpipes is harmful to everyone, but especially those who get heavier-than-average exposure and those whose lungs aren’t as able to deal with toxins, like the chronically ill, elderly, and very young. A recent study showed that, in the Bay Area alone, more than 2,500 lives are lost and 5,200 children develop asthma every year due to traffic-related air pollution exposure. California regulators monitor air pollution levels across the state every year, and counties with lower average incomes and higher proportions of non-white residents consistently fail to meet state and federal standards. It’s time for California to establish new nation-leading solutions that prioritize those who have historically been left behind.

Fortunately, California has already figured out how to deal with vehicle pollution emissions: make our cars and trucks cleaner. We’ve already moved on from the super-polluters blanketing the LA Basin in smog clouds to more efficient fossil fuel-powered cars, now we have to take the next step and break our addiction to fossil fuels by transitioning to a zero-emission transportation sector. Not only will this save lives and keep people healthier, it will save Californians billions on fuel and maintenance expenses while creating hundreds of thousands of jobs (and reducing our reliance on foreign oil).

The good news is that the car market has already begun shifting (slowly) toward clean vehicles, and state and federal leaders are now stepping up to set strong goals and direct unprecedented amounts of money into accelerating this next major transportation revolution. But with a climate crisis to avert and thousands of lives lost every year, California’s zero-emission vehicle revolution simply isn’t happening quickly enough. That’s exactly the problem our Electrify CA! framework addresses: I encourage you to read this post, which discusses our policy framework in detail. What sets Electrify CA! apart from similar policy proposals is that it centers low-income and disadvantaged communities: our plan puts equity and frontline communities first.

It’s time for California to step up and lead the nation once again. Let’s transform the way we move people across the state and build a more sustainable, just future for all.

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