Mike Vandeman

May 14, 1989


Vehicles in the San Francisco Air Basin emit 3118.4 tons per day of CO, RHC (reactive hydrocarbons), NOx, and SOx. They also emit unburned HC, lead, particulates, halogens, and CO2. Of the more than 2800 compounds found in the atmosphere, over 280 come from the automobile. Many of these are carcinogenic. Over 91% of the CO comes from vehicles, 57% of the RHC, 68% of the NOx, and 40% of the SOx. "[CFCs from] car air conditioners are the single greatest source of the U.S. contribution to ozone depletion, according to scientists and testimony before legislative committees." (SF Examiner, May 10, 1989)

Ozone (O3), which is created in the atmosphere from RHC and NOx, is a poison as dangerous as mustard gas. (Low-altitude O3 should be distinguished from stratospheric O3, which protects the Earth from cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation.) Low doses cause nasal irritation and breathing difficulties, and endanger sufferers from asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema. Children, pregnant women, the aged, and those with cardiopulmonary problems are especially at risk (some 2.5 million in the Bay Area). The Bay Area fails to meet either the State or Federal standards for O3. In addition, the EPA has recently determined that the Federal standard is inadequate to protect our health, and that there may be NO level at which O3 is safe.

CO is also deadly, and is a popular method of committing suicide. CO robs the body of oxygen. Small doses produce headaches and sleepiness, but can be life-threatening to those with heart disease. Larger doses affect everyone's vision, alertness, and manual coordination. Thus, it is undoubtedly the cause of some automobile accidents. In pregnant women, it may cause mental and physical birth defects. The Bay Area also fails to meet the State and Federal CO standards. NOx and SOx produce acid rain. and particulates of these and other compounds provide a vehicle for carcinogenic heavy metals and other harmful substances to enter the deepest recesses of the lungs.

It should be remembered that our pollutants do not remain here. They are transported to the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, where they contribute to THEIR failure to meet air quality standards. Some of the other serious environmental effects of the automobile and its relatives are: the Greenhouse Effect (the United Nations has stated that we must REDUCE TRAFFIC BY 50% over the next 50 years, or suffer a 9 degree (F) rise in temperature and a 5 foot rise in sea level, as well as the mass extinction of thousands of species of plants and animals); Ozone Depletion (which will cause skin cancer and cataracts); huge losses of prime farm land, wilderness, and wildlife habitat; vast numbers of road-killed wildlife; and crop damage (ozone damages grapes and leafy vegetables at only .04-.05 ppm; air pollution ìcauses $330 million in crop damage per year in California). And, of course, we mustn't forget the noise pollution, depletion of natural resources, and 5361 deaths and 356,945 injuries per year in California from motor vehicle accidents.


For many years, highway planners have rationalized expanding the highway system by asserting that they were allowing traffic to speed up and thereby get better mileage and produce less pollution. However, within the last few years, J.R. Kenworthy and others have completed research proving that this is a myth. What actually happens is that given the ability to drive faster, people take that as an opportunity to drive farther and more often. The tiny initial savings in fuel consumption and lower emissions is overwhelmed by the increase in VMT (vehicle miles travelled). Fuel consumption and emissions actually GO UP. Projected time savings are also a myth: researchers found that expanding the freeway system induces people to find jobs (at a higher salary) farther from home and find (cheaper) housing farther from their work, with the result that they end up living an even more automobile-dependent lifestyle and spending MORE time in their cars! (By the way, Kenworthy also found the optimum speed, for lowering fuel consumption, to be 34 MPH (55 kph). This is one more reason why alleged fuel savings from freeway expansion, based on speeding up traffic to 55 MPH, are a fantasy.) The bottom line is that congestion, far from being an evil that must be eradicated, is actually a very humane way of keeping VMT and air pollution in check. Like pain, it is a potentially LIFESAVING indicator, telling us that we are doing something harmful to our "bodies". Just as nasal congestion does not mean that our nose must be widened, traffic congestion signals an UNDERLYING DISEASE (losangelism) that should be cared for.

Other negative effects of highway expansion are drawing patrons away from public transit (also documented by Kenworthy), the creation of (allegedly) auto-dependent urban sprawl (also called, appropriately, "losangelization"), expanding the square mileage of pavement that must be maintained, and using up more of our very limited supply of oil. Due to economic, environmental, and mathematical restraints (our space and resources are, after all, finite), we cannot blanket the entire state with concrete. The only question is, When will we stop? All of our highways, no matter how congested during the "rush hours", are still not being used to their full capacity. While we clammer to add lanes to I80, for example, it is still only carrying 66% of its maximum capacity, according to the latest Caltrans traffic figures. SR24 is nearly empty most of the time. (Incidentally, one rail line carries the equivalent in passengers to 8 freeway lanes.)

Three other important factors work to create our present auto-dependent condition: a heavy subsidy of the automobile in preference to other modes of transportation, as documented by ìStanley Hart; a large imbalance in the mix of jobs, housing, and basic services, "forcing" most people to have to drive almost everywhere; and the mistaken belief that driving is a right, rather than a privilege.


The Clean Air Act (CAA) is a federal law that requires every air basin to attain and maintain certain very minimal health- based ambient air quality standards. In California, we have State standards that are even stricter than those federal standards. Part of the CAA is embodied in our State Implementation Plan (SIP), the Bay Area's portion of which is the 1982 Air Quality Plan. The AQP requires that, if we should fail to make straight- line progress towards meeting the standards, we should immediately delay all highway projects (such as capacity- expanding projects) that might worsen the air pollution problem.

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires all projects that might have a significant detrimental effect on the environment to produce an EIR, giving decision-makers all the information they need to make a good, environmentally sound decision. Highway planners are notorious for using a Negative Declaration (denying significant negative effects) where an EIR is required, not analyzing all feasible alternatives (e.g. transit alternatives in addition to freeway expansion alternatives), ignoring growth inducement and cumulative effects, and a host of other shortcuts.

The recently passed California Clean Air Act (AB2595) and AB3971 (Cortese) require us to reduce VMT, until we meet the air quality standards. They give the Bay Area Air Quality Management District the authority to make this happen. Clearly, among the measures needed will have to be curbs on highway expansion.


Most of the easy pollution control measures have already been implemented. We have squeezed most of the benefits that we can from stationary sources (industry); if we are serious about getting clean air, most of the rest of our progress will have to be provided by the transportation sector. This implies a shift away from expanding the highway system and toward a modern rail system like ones found in Europe, Canada, Japan, and parts of the United States.


Stanley Hart, "Huge City Subsidies for Autos, Trucks", California Transit, July-Sept., 1986.

Jill Jaeger, "Developing Policies for Responding to Climatic Change", World Meteorological Organization, April, 1988.

P.W.G. Newman and J.R. Kenworthy, "The use and abuse of driving cycle research: clarifying the relationship between traffic congestion, energy and emissions", Transportation Quarterly, Vol.

38, 1984, 615-635.

P.W.G Newman, J.R. Kenworthy, and T.J. Lyons, "Does Free-Flowing ìTraffic Save Energy and Lower Emissions in Cities?", Search, Vol. 19, No.5/6, September/November, 1988.

P.W.G Newman, J.R. Kenworthy, and T.J. Lyons, "Transport Energy Conservation Policies for Australian Cities", End of Grant Report, Project No. 836, August, 1987.

J.R. Kenworthy, H. Rainford, P.W.G. Newman, and T.J. Lyons, "Fuel Consumption, Time Saving and Freeway Speed Limits", Traffic Engineering and Control, September, 1986.