Use transit as weapon against ozone attack

July 24, 2002|By Scot Spencer and John Balbus

BALTIMORE'S ozone pollution is getting worse, and while local politicians fiddle, our lungs are burning.

It is not enough to hold ozone action days in response to forecasts for harmful levels of ozone. The region needs concrete steps that can be taken to prevent "code orange" and "code red" days from occurring with frightening regularity.

Ozone pollution causes serious health problems. Studies show that smog can trigger asthma attacks and exacerbate other respiratory illnesses. Baltimore already has one of the highest asthma rates among U.S. cities. A new study by the University of Southern California Medical School demonstrates that smog can actually cause asthma among young children who exercise in areas with high levels of ozone.

Vehicle exhaust, increased drive times for commuters and an explosion in the popularity of bigger, more polluting SUVs and trucks are pushing local ozone levels to new heights. Continuing growth in the Washington-Baltimore area is only making things worse.

For example, in East Baltimore, 12,000 vehicles already enter and exit the Johns Hopkins medical campus each day. A proposed 20-acre biotechnology park near the campus will introduce as many as 7,000 new parking spaces, increasing the vehicle load and pollution levels in a community dominated by children and senior citizens (two groups already at high risk for respiratory illness).

Despite the threat we all face from bad air, employers and developers continue to encourage people to drive by building more garages and parking lots and offering employees paid or subsidized parking. This practice rewards those who drive to work at a time when we really need more incentives to get people out of their cars and onto mass transit, bikes or even their own two feet.

Maryland's Commuter Choice program aims to do just that by offering employers a 50 percent tax credit to help cover the cost of providing employees with transit benefits or added cash incentives to encourage carpooling, walking, biking and telecommuting.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's efforts to fund clean buses, better sidewalks and bicycle facilities and transit-oriented development to reduce emissions in Maryland are a step in the right direction. But more steps can be taken to implement the program and to ensure its success.

In places such as Denver and California's Silicon Valley, employers are purchasing deeply discounted "average cost" transit passes that cover 100 percent of their work force, just like health benefits.

In Portland, Ore., more than 80,000 workers are given such benefits, at an average cost to employers of less than $12 a month. King County Metro in Washington state found that offering such passes boosts transit use by 80 percent at work sites.

In Los Angeles, firms that offer workers the option to receive $2 to $3 a day instead of parking incentives find one in eight employees willing to give up driving to work. These payments are powerful and positive incentives to get employees to leave their cars at home, and they are much more popular than trying to eliminate free or reduced-cost parking.

At the same time, bus and rail systems need to be improved and expanded and parking should be managed in ways that improve transit efficiency and encourage the use of public transportation.

Limiting the number of available parking spaces or increasing the cost of parking is one way to make rail and bus service more appealing options for commuters.

As parking becomes more expensive and public transportation improves, incentives for not driving are greatly increased.

Breathing high levels of ozone in the air will affect our lives. We can choose to do nothing about it and continue to count the numbers of adults and children who fall ill with asthma and other respiratory diseases, or we can get serious about reducing ozone and promoting a healthier community at the same time.

Scot Spencer is a transportation specialist for Environmental Defense and is based in Baltimore. John Balbus, M.D., is director of the environmental health program at Environmental Defense and is based in Washington.

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