The American Lung Association gives Anne Arundel County's air quality an "F," rating it as the 11th worst in the United States. We have the poorest air quality during the hot, humid days of summer. That's why August is a good time to explore this alarming health and environmental crisis.
Because automobiles are among the worst contributors to air pollution, we can improve air quality throughout the region by simply adjusting our personal driving and transportation habits.
The most prevalent and harmful problem is ground-level ozone, or smog. Ozone is created when nitrogen and volatile organic compounds, primarily from vehicular exhaust, combine in the presence of sunlight on a typical summer day.
As more and more of us drive more and more miles in more and more vehicles, our air quality will continue to decline. Although the average fuel efficiency of our cars has improved and new cars generally emit fewer pollutants than older cars, the explosive growth of heavier and less-efficient trucks and sport utility vehicles makes the situation worse. Fuel consumption and noxious emissions will continue to rise if we do not act.
Our suffering is most clear in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a hot afternoon. While we sit alone in relative comfort in our air-conditioned luxury vehicle, we are all equal in a traffic jam, regardless of social status, income, or the type of car we drive. And we all breathe the same air.
In order to make a difference, we must examine our lifestyle choices. We are fortunate to have many personal choices, and they are expanding all the time. While it may not be easy to decide where we live or where we work, we have choices about how we commute or transport ourselves. Aside from the private single-occupancy vehicle, we can ride in a carpool, use public transportation, walk, ride a bicycle, or even work from home.
Buses, trains and bicycles
Public transportation choices in Anne Arundel County - and throughout the Baltimore metropolitan area - vary greatly, ranging from light rail to buses to commuter rail to almost no choice at all in some areas. In the Annapolis area, residents have a wide variety of choices, including walking and cycling trails, commuter service to Washington and Baltimore, water taxis, and a convenient, award-winning local bus system.
Every passenger on public transit means one less automobile with one less polluting tailpipe on our roads. Every full bus removes many vehicles with many engines and tailpipes from the road, shrinking those pollutant effects to one engine with one tailpipe.
By using any mode of transportation other than your single-occupancy vehicle, you will save money and reduce air pollution.
The Federal Transit Administration says that each year, America's public transportation keeps more than 126 million pounds of hydrocarbons, a primary cause of smog, and 156 million pounds of nitrogen oxides, which also contribute to the pollution of the Chesapeake Bay, from our air.
This is not just about saving our air, but also about saving money. Nothing can "drive" this point home more clearly than comparing fuel and travel costs.
While carpooling obviously splits costs, consider that one gallon of gasoline costs at least $1.55, while a bus ride or light rail ride can cost as little as 35 cents. In 1998, the American Automobile Association estimated the annual costs for driving a single-occupant vehicle to be between $4,826 and $9,685, depending on the size of the car and the mileage driven.
The astronomical costs of car ownership that a family can save by giving up that second or third car would add up to millions saved for a community. Think how that saved money could be invested in our homes, our schools, our community. We could invest in parks instead of parking lots.
And even if we avoid using our cars just one day a week, we will help to improve the quality of the air we breathe.
It's not likely that masses of Americans will suddenly abandon private cars, but it is possible to seek new solutions. If the choices of transportation we presently have are not sufficiently convenient or attractive, we can work to persuade our business and government leaders to expand them.
Healthy, wealthy, friendly
Decreasing our dependence on personal automobiles will not only make us healthier and wealthier, it might help us get to know our neighbors and our neighborhoods a little bit better.
The costs of breathing unhealthy and dangerously polluted air is huge in terms of illness, premature death, lost productivity and discomfort. Why are we spending so much money to kill ourselves?
The good news is that each one of us can do something about it. We can each take a step in the right direction by getting out of our cars and onto a bus or a bike, or into our walking shoes.
Paul Foer is the marketing special ist for the Annapolis Department of Transportation. He was assisted by two summer interns, Laura Faulkner of Hillsmere and Megan Sharpe of Crofton.