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Breaking Old Habits

December 17, 1987

Southern California's largest smog-fighting agency nudged 11 million citizens in a new direction last week. The new road is steeper, with more social and economic barriers than the old, but it is the only one that leads to air clean enough to keep the region's citizens healthy and their economy prospering.

Fourteen members of the board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District--which sets clean-air policy for Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties--did the nudging in the form of a plan to get more commuters into fewer cars and vans at rush hour. A similar ride-sharing plan was rejected two years ago by the same board. Last week the approval of an even stricter plan was unanimous.

Perhaps the first vote reflected complacency over the fact that Southern California air was cleaner than it had been in years. The board may well have thought that it had a free choice between bearing down hard on new rules and enforcement and waiting for something to turn up.

Between the two votes, James M. Lents took over as director of the district. His theme has been that the air over Southern California is so much dirtier than that over any other city that technology like scrubbers on power plants and catalytic converters on automobiles is not enough to hold back air pollution.

A recent draft of an overall strategy to buff up the skies over Southern California and restore some of the luster that lured its early settlers distilled Lents' message: "Attaining clean-air standards in this basin will cut across the fabric of how we live, work and play." Because technology cannot do the job alone, Southern California must change many of its habits.

Other intervening factors included outside criticism that the board was dragging its feet and a bill sponsored by Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside) that would give the board new authority to force changes in some of those habits.

The statistics must have been very persuasive. Los Angeles is the only place in the nation that puts more nitrogen dioxide into the air from tailpipes and smokestacks than federal standards allow. Nitrogen dioxide combines with hydrocarbons to create ozone. There is too much ozone in the air over Southern California for peoples' own good on 140 days of the year. No place else in the nation comes close to that number. New York City, for example, has high ozone counts 20 days a year.

Without stricter controls, the district staff says, the ozone over Southern California will nearly treble in 20 years, carbon monoxide will nearly double and nitrogen dioxide will stay about the same.

The nudge on ride-sharing is just that. Its fairly modest goal is to have an average of 15 people in every 10 cars on the road at rush hour instead of the current ratio of 10 people in every 9 cars.

In return, commuters would get modest direct reductions in air pollution. But the district thinks that rush-hour traffic would thin out by 25%--no small achievement with vehicle travel estimated to increase 60% in the next two decades.

A change in commuting habits would depend, at first, on businesses with more than 100 employees making it worthwhile for workers to change commuting habits. The kind and cost of incentives are left to the imagination of employers. One approach might offer prime parking space for cars that roll up in the morning with four people in them. Another could be subsidized bus fares.

In a region that launched the phrase "You are what you drive," getting more people into fewer vehicles may not be easy, but it must be done. Commuting in regal isolation with every seat but the driver's empty assumes the same kind of freedom of choice that the smog agency's directors seemed to think they had two years ago. That freedom is being whittled down, not just for policy-makers but for all of us, by growth and pollution.

Ride-sharing is only the first of dozens of changes contemplated in the air quality district's proposed grand strategy for clean air. It is one of many cuts that must be made across the fabric of the way Southern California lives, works and plays. It is the sort of cut of which people will one day look up on a clear day and say: It didn't hurt a bit.

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