Cleaning the Air, Growing Smarter


Transportation and Land Use Changes to Improve Public Health in Contra Costa County


Transportation and Land Use Coalition (now known as TransForm)

Year Published: 


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Executive Summary

Programs to reduce air pollution in the Bay Area have often focused on whether the region meets or exceeds maximum levels of ozone (smog) set by the state and federal regulators. But Contra Costa County residents are being exposed to another dangerous - and growing - air pollution threat: particulate matter. These tiny pieces of dust get lodged deep in people's lungs and cause an array of health problems.

At the end of the so-called "smog season", air quality officials celebrated the news that this year the nine-county Bay Area had only one violation of federal smog regulations. By contrast, for the past decade Contra Costa County alone has averaged 18 days per year that it exceeded the state's standards on particulate matter. And while regulators expect emissions of many other pollutants to drop, they expect Contra Costa's particulate matter pollution to keep growing with no end in sight.

Changes in engine technology, which regulators have focused on to address other air pollution concerns, has helped reduce emissions of carbon monoxide and smog-causing pollutants such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) and reactive organic gases (ROG). But technology can't fix the problem of tiny particles released during driving, because 89% of it is road dust that is kicked up by vehicles; only a small fraction is released from tailpipes. The only way to significantly reduce particulate emissions - and the health effects - from reentrained road dust is to reduce driving.

High levels of particulate matter are known to increase asthma attacks and symptoms in both children and adults, and may be a contributing factor causing asthma in otherwise healthy individuals. Other public health problems associated with high levels of particulates include pneumonia, heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. More Californians die each year from particulate air pollution than from car accidents, murder and AIDS combined.

These air pollution problems hit disadvantaged communities the hardest. This report studied eleven low-income and minority communities in the county for air pollution levels and associated health impacts. These environmental justice communities - Richmond, San Pablo, North Richmond, Hercules, Rodeo, Martinez, Concord, Bay Point, Pittsburg, Antioch, and Brentwood - have 22% of the county's population but are home to 63% of the county's peopleof- color and 44% of its low-income households.

These communities bear a double burden of air pollution, a combination of elevated industrial and transportation-related pollution. Not only is every environmental justice community in Contra Costa located by or near a major roadway, but all of the top 20 industrial sources of air toxics in the county also lie in and around these communities. Contra Costa is out of attainment with the state standards for particulate matter, and the county's monitoring stations in Concord and Pittsburg record some of the highest levels of ozone and particulates in the region.

Not surprisingly, these environmental justice communities all have higher asthma rates than the county average, The problem is worst in Richmond, where asthma rates are two and half times higher than the rest of the County. Children and people-of-color are most at risk: African American children in Contra Costa are hospitalized for asthma four and a half times as often as white children.

Particulate matter emissions pose a growing health crisis, and Contra Costa's leaders need to address it aggressively. But Contra Costa has not focused on stemming the growth in vehicle travel, the primary source of the continuing growth in particulates. Between 1980 and 2000, the daily vehicle miles traveled on Contra Costa's roadways increased by 78%, nearly twice as fast as population growth - 42%. Sprawl development and a lack of transportation choices, fostered by county and regional transportation and land use policies, have forced people to spend increasing amounts of time in their cars driving to increasingly distant destinations. At the same time, the financial costs drivers face fails to reflect the true health and environmental costs vehicle travel places on our communities.

CLEANING THE AIR, GROWING SMARTER presents specific policies, programs and investments that Contra Costa's leaders can take to reduce the public health impacts of the transportation system and land use patterns that are contributing to the rapid increase in vehicle travel:

  • Design Communities for People, Not Just for Cars. Reining in sprawl and supporting transit and downtown-oriented affordable housing are essential to stem residents' increasing dependence on vehicle travel for non-work trips such as shopping, school, and recreation as well as the growing length and aggravation of the daily commute. These and other smart growth policies can reduce vehicle travel, improve air quality, and help channel investment into existing communities. Success will depend on improving Measure C's Growth Management Program and funding the smart growth incentive program as well as leaders' commitment to implement Shaping Our Future, the joint city-county effort to plan for smarter growth.
  • Provide Viable Alternatives to Driving: Mass Transit, Bicycle & Pedestrian Access, and Ride-Sharing. With traffic congestion skyrocketing, Contra Costa commuters need new transit alternatives. These should include a comprehensive express bus network, new eBART stations surrounded by compact, mixed-use developments, and local feeder bus service. The county must also provide better access and safety for pedestrians and bicyclists and encourage ride-sharing. A strong commitment to alternatives to driving in the new Measure C's expenditure plan and passage of legislation to improve mass transit by raising tolls on state-owned bridges (SB 916) are both essential to achieving these improvements.
  • Optimize the County's HOV Network. To fill gaps in the county's high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane network, transportation officials should consider converting existing mixed-flow lanes to high-occupancy toll lanes or carpool lanes on State Route 24 and Interstate 680 and building a reversible carpool lane on State Route 4 East.
  • Set transportation prices to reflect the true costs of driving. Pricing mechanisms such as gas taxes, bridge tolls, and parking charges would help reflect the true cost of driving. Combined with financial incentives to use alternatives, these pricing mechanisms are key strategies to decrease vehicle travel, congestion, and improve air quality. These charges could help raise new revenue for transportation improvements, or be used to reduce other taxes, such as sales or property taxes. The Bay Area's air district should follow San Joaquin's example and adopt a development impact fee to fund programs that offset the air pollution impacts caused by new development.
  • Promote Cleaner Vehicles and Fuels. Cleaner fuels and vehicles can reduce the harmful public health effects of vehicle use, and some of these improvements can be targeted to diesel trucks and buses, which have a significant impact in low-income communities. Still, technological improvements have their limitations and cannot be relied upon to reduce particulate emissions, one of the greatest health threats facing the county from vehicle travel.

In addition, the report presents several recommendations for reducing vehicle travel specifically within the county's environmental justice communities:

  • Adopt Specific Plans for Transit Villages. To promote transit-oriented developments, cities, the county, and transit agencies should team up to develop Specific Plans for key areas such as Pittsburg/Bay Point BART, Concord BART, North Concord BART, Martinez Intermodal, San Pablo Avenue Rapid Bus corridor, and the proposed eBART stations.
  • Manage Truck Traffic to Reduce Air Pollution. Through their own actions or by pressure on industrial and other facilities, cities could seek to reduce the harmful air pollution impacts of diesel truck traffic by using cleaner vehicle technology, replacing truck trips with rail trips, and improving the efficiency of fleet operation.
  • Target Contra Costa Clean Fuel Vehicle Project to Environmental Justice Communities. The county should increase funding for the Contra Costa Clean Fuel Vehicle Project and target investments to help environmental justice communities to purchase and convert to alternative fuel vehicles and retrofit old diesel engines.

Over the next few years, residents will have a tremendous chance to pursue these recommendations. With potential funding sources such as the bridge toll and the new Measure C slated for 2004, and with initiatives such as Shaping Our Future, Contra Costa has the opportunity to fundamentally shift its approach to transportation and land use and create a transportation future that improves both air quality and public health. By designing communities for people, not just for cars, providing residents with viable options and reasons to switch from driving to mass transit, bicycling, and walking, and by promoting clean fuels and vehicles for those who must drive, the county can decrease the exposure of all residents to the harmful health effects of pollutants such as particulate matter, toxics, and ozone.

Download the full report (1.1 MB PDF file)