Suburban Cars And Urban Health

One of the differences I’ve noticed between Boston and D.C. is the apparent air quality–there are days in D.C. when you can really feel the air pollution. On those days, I love single car commuters all that much more (can I hook your car’s exhaust up to your HVAC, just for a few seconds? It’ll be fine, I’m sure…). But the reason I wrote apparent air quality is that Boston is one of the windiest cities in the U.S. (it has a higher average daily wind speed than Chicago, the Windy City). So the air pollution is blown away.

Lest you think this is just some trivial quality-of-life issue, relatively minor reductions in air pollution can have significant effects on child health:

…we come across this interesting abstract about the benefits of reducing congestion at toll plazas by using E-ZPass:

We find that reductions in traffic congestion generated by E-ZPass reduced the incidence of prematurity and low birth weight among mothers within 2km of a toll plaza by 6.7-9.1% and 8.5-11.3% respectively, with larger effects for African-Americans, smokers, and those very close to toll plazas. There were no immediate changes in the characteristics of mothers or in housing prices in the vicinity of toll plazas that could explain these changes, and the results are robust to many changes in specification. The results suggest that traffic congestion is a significant contributor to poor health in affected infants. Estimates of the costs of traffic congestion should account for these important health externalities.

…we have never adequately internalized the cost of automobile travel. We can argue about the extent to which road construction and gasoline manufacture and transport are subsidized, but I would like to think that “incidence of prematurity and low birth weight” are unacceptable ‘subsidies.’

Like comic books, the harmful effects of air pollution aren’t just for kids anymore (boldface mine):

A new study of Boston residents who live or spend a significant amount of time near Interstate 93 and the Massachusetts Turnpike has found that their exposure to microscopic metals and chemicals spewed from vehicles increases their chances of suffering a heart attack or stroke…

The findings suggest that those who live within 1,500 feet of a highway have a greater likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease than those living twice as far away. More than 45 million Americans live within 900 feet of a major road, railroad, or airport, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

The study, conducted by researchers at Tufts University School of Medicine and Boston University School of Public Health, used mobile labs to analyze the health impact of microscopic pollution on residents of Chinatown, Dorchester, and South Boston…

Even relatively brief exposure — just months or days — can elevate health risks, they said.

“We need to start finding ways to reduce exposure of ultrafine particles, especially near homes, schools, parks, and playgrounds,” said Doug Brugge, one of the researchers and a professor of public health at Tufts University School of Medicine. “It’s important to note that ultrafine particles are not regulated.”

He and others called on developers of new properties to install advanced air filtration systems, and for transportation officials to consider installing decking over highways…

He said the city is working to reduce traffic in Boston by discouraging commuters from driving alone and encouraging more residents to bike or drive low-emissions vehicles.

More from the study:

In the study, financed with a $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, researchers took blood samples and interviewed more than 400 people who live as close as a few hundred feet and more than a half mile from Interstate 93. They adjusted for age, gender, body fat, and whether someone smoked, among other factors.

The researchers found that residents who lived within 1,500 feet of the highway were likely to have 14 percent more C-reactive protein in their blood than those who lived more than a half-mile away. Higher amounts of the protein indicate a higher likelihood of a stroke or heart attack.

There’s a double-whammy here. Not only do most suburbanites have to drive to get anyway, but, when they drive to cities, they are converging on a small number of places within cities, further concentrating air pollution.

We need to stop externalizing the costs of air pollution, and to start reflecting those costs in the price of driving.

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2 Responses to Suburban Cars And Urban Health

  1. realthog says:

    One way of reducing the toll-plaza problem would surely be to abolish toll plazas. They seem an absolute anachronism. Bridges and major highways serve the economic interests of the nation and individual states, and so should be funded in the same way as any other thoroughfare.

  2. rwv says:

    so you’re saying only rich folks should have the means to gas us all to death?

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