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LA should dismantle its freeways

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It’s unhealthy to live next to freeways—but the homes aren’t the problem

Los Angeles freeways could become community assets, much like the way San Francisco remade the Embarcadero from a double-decker freeway into a grand, multimodal boulevard—where people want to live, work, and visit.

A new Los Angeles Times investigation confirms what researchers have said for years: Living near freeways is not only extremely unhealthy, the most dangerous pollution travels farther and sticks around longer than previously thought. This expands the area in our cities where it is unsafe to live.

The Times report includes a link to a story documenting residents’ anger that Los Angeles continues to let apartments and condos rise so close to freeways.

But the city should not be blamed for letting people move so close to the deadly stream of cars. The city should be blamed for allowing a deadly stream of cars to continue to travel so close to where people need to live.

About 1.2 million Angelenos live within 500 feet of local freeways, what was long considered to be the “danger zone.” The new report says that 1,000 feet can be just as dangerous, depending on the time of day. It also finds that major streets carrying more than 10,000 cars per day—including Sepulveda, La Cienega and Wilshire—are just as unhealthy as freeways.

In a huge portion of the city, residents are sentenced to a long list of debilitating diseases, chronic health problems, and shorter life expectancy. It’s not just Los Angeles. An estimated 30 to 45 percent of all urban residents in the U.S. live in areas that put them at risk.

The Times’ investigation provides an important service to Angelenos concerned about their health. It includes a nifty tool for residents to find out how close they live to the nearest freeway, plus tips on how to decrease exposure to harmful particles, such as avoiding freeways at certain times, closing and sealing all windows, and running an AC unit 24 hours a day.

But much of the advice is unrealistic for many Angelenos. For people looking for an affordable place to live, an apartment near a freeway or busy street might be the only option. And, for people who commute without cars, freeway pollution is impossible to avoid. In many parts of the city, our public transit stations are built smack dab in the middle of our busiest freeways.

A new report from the Los Angeles Times says living within 1,000 feet of a freeway can be dangerous, depending on the time of day.

There are neighborhoods, like in Boyle Heights, for example, where all of the homes, offices, shops, schools, and parks are less than 1000 feet from a freeway. These residents might spend a majority of their days without ever leaving the zone that’s known to be unhealthy. What do we tell those people? Stay inside, run your AC constantly, relocate?

The city, for its part, does require pricey filtration systems for new construction projects. But the filters, which do not remove all toxic chemicals from the air, do nothing to help all the Angelenos who live and work in older buildings near freeways.

Many of these homes have been around since before freeways were built. Neighborhoods were carved up in order to raise highways, and now these homes pose major health risks.

Even the city’s planners agree that letting people live this close to freeways is a bad idea. Last year, planning commissioner Dana Perlman said he’d no longer support putting balconies on freeway-adjacent projects like Geoff Palmer’s Orsini apartment complex, where residents can essentially high-five commuters on the 110/101 interchange in Downtown:

“I really do not want to be continuing to drive down our city’s freeways and look at residential multifamily residential towers next to the freeways with balconies with furniture on them inviting people to go out and breathe those poisonous fumes.”

Yet Perlman’s quote reveals what’s wrong with the city’s approach—I’m driving on those freeways, and I’m going to keep driving on those freeways, so just move people away from my poisonous fumes so I can keep driving, okay?

Councilmember José Huizar wants to go further, implementing buffer areas around freeways to analyze and prevent construction there. Are we really going to continue to widen these scars through the city, stopping new development here while forcing our most marginalized residents to continue breathing the air in these 1,000-foot wide dead zones? Or are we actually going to reclaim these valuable lands as safe places for our neighbors to live?

Every time this issue is broached, there’s sentiment from local lawmakers that the introduction of emissions-free electric cars will solve the problem. In fact, a state bill has just been introduced that would ban the sale of new fossil-fuel vehicles by 2040.

But as the Times investigation notes, electric cars will not completely improve air quality due to the continued presence of brake dust and particles from roadways. Fewer cars is the only pathway to healthier communities.

We can’t wait for the slow (but growing!) adoption rate of electric vehicles when we have a housing crisis to address. Los Angeles County needs over 500,000 housing units to bring rents down.

With anti-density groups succeeding at forcing development out of desirable neighborhoods, often the only available land for developers to build at the size and scale needed to solve the housing shortage problem is near busy roads and freeways. It’s the reason that many of these residential buildings are so close to the freeways in the first place.

According to recommendations by the California Air Resources Board, the “foremost strategy for reducing pollution exposure near high-volume roadways is to minimize traffic pollution in the first place.” The agency’s recommendation? “Encouraging and facilitating the replacement of vehicle trips with walk, bike, and transit trips.”

The Air Resources Board’s recommendations suggest physical improvements to high-capacity roads like wider sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and dedicated transit lanes to help reduce vehicle trips.

The document also recommends speed limit reductions, including roundabouts, as a way to reduce dangerous emissions. That means the road diets that transportation planners are implementing to help save lives would also improve the health of people who live near busy streets.

In addition, the agency recommends adding trees and vegetation, converting asphalt to parks and open space, and constructing buildings of varying heights to help filter and disperse pollution instead of trapping it around roadways.

Another idea? Dismantling LA’s most densely populated freeways entirely, as many cities have done with much success (and without any impact on traffic).

The stretch of the 101 from Downtown to Hollywood would make an excellent candidate. It often travels at-grade, is well-served by transit like Metro’s Red line, and will eventually be bookended by two proposed freeway cap parks.

Instead of being a health risk to those who live nearby, the 101 could become an asset to the community, much like the way San Francisco remade the Embarcadero from a double-decker freeway into a grand, multimodal boulevard—where people want to live, work, and visit.

In order to do this citywide, and at the magnitude that’s needed, our rail network and dedicated bus lanes would have to be even more rapidly expanded. That, and incentivizing housing around those transportation modes, should be the goal of city councilmembers and planning commissioners.

We shouldn’t make planning decisions that preserve freeways. Cars won’t be around forever. People will always need places to live.