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In the Fight Against Air Pollution, Diamonds Are a Hybrid's Best Friend

Commentary

A gas-electric car should be a ticket to drive in the carpool lane.

February 19, 2004|Laurie David and Al Meyerhoff

California's "diamond lanes" -- designed in the early 1970s to encourage carpooling, reduce traffic congestion and cut air pollution -- have, by most measures, been a great success. Today, there are 1,112 miles of diamond lanes in California, and in Los Angeles alone they're used by about 700,000 people each day.

But rather than rest on that success, it's time to take the next step against pollution by opening diamond lanes to single- occupant gas-electric hybrids.

Hybrid cars, which use about half the gasoline of the average car, fight smog just as carpooling does, and they too should be encouraged by the state. True, there's already a tax credit (though meager) and rock-bottom monthly gas bills for hybrid owners, but by opening diamond lanes to single-occupant hybrids, California would score a double whammy, with an environmental benefit far greater than the sum of its parts. Given the state's increasing population (of both people and cars), the air needs all the help it can get.

Consider that we Californians now burn about 1 million barrels of gasoline daily, an amount likely to skyrocket because the rate of vehicle ownership is keeping pace with our burgeoning population. By 2020, there will be 30% more cars on our roads, and if the current trend continues, the majority will be bigger and less fuel-efficient. American cars and trucks already consume more than 8 million barrels of oil daily, putting the tab for foreign crude at about $200,000 per minute.

Then there is pollution. Southern California smog levels last year were the worst in five years, and our three-decade trend of air quality improvement is in reverse. The air we breathe contains 188 different toxic substances, including carcinogens such as benzene, dioxin and chromium. Southern California's cars and trucks spew millions of tons of smog-forming chemicals, causing eye, ear, nose and bronchial irritation, asthma and respiratory disease.

Which brings us back to hybrids. Though these low-emission, fuel-efficient vehicles are increasing in popularity, especially in California, their sales are still only a drop in the bucket. Just last week, a General Motors spokesperson said demand for hybrid cars in the United States "is so marginal that American car companies can't afford to make them." Gas-electric vehicles need incentives to push demand past the tipping point. Allowing single-occupant hybrids into diamond lanes would be just the nudge that's needed.

Existing federal laws inexplicably hold light trucks (including pickups, SUVs and mini-vans) to lower fuel economy standards and often give their buyers huge tax breaks, thus increasing our dependence on foreign oil. On the other hand, a fuel-efficient fleet could save California 340,000 barrels of oil per day. Why not increase incentives for vehicles that sip gasoline instead of guzzling it?

Consider that a Cadillac Escalade with a driver and single passenger has full access to most diamond lanes, whereas a single-occupant hybrid using one quarter the gas and emitting far less pollution does not. That's why both Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, and state Treasurer Phil Angelides, a Democrat, are championing access to diamond lanes as an incentive to go hybrid.

Such a policy wouldn't congest existing diamond lanes. There are only about 20,000 hybrids on the road in California, compared with 29 million other vehicles, and over the next 15 years hybrids will make up, at most, 2% of the state's total vehicle traffic, according to former Caltrans Director Jeff Morales.

Changing the rules requires federal approval. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta should grant California authority to give residents this extra incentive, along with a three-year "sunset provision" -- if diamond lanes become congested (a problem to welcome) the policy could be terminated.

Opening diamond lanes to hybrids obviously is not the only way to get cleaner cars on the road. But it is one way to reduce air pollution and cut our reliance on foreign oil without government mandates. All it takes is a small reward for an intelligent choice. And what better reward could there be than a diamond?

Laurie David is a trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Al Meyerhoff, formerly director of the council's public health program, is a lawyer in Los Angeles.

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