Posted on March 12, 2023

How White and Affluent Drivers Are Polluting the Air Breathed by L.A.’s People of Color

Sammy Roth, Los Angeles Times, March 9, 2023

Like many Angelenos, I spend a lot of time behind the wheel of my car. I drive from my Westside apartment to Dodger Stadium near downtown and farther east to hike in the San Gabriel Mountains. I take the 405 Freeway north to the San Fernando Valley to see friends, or occasionally south to the L.A. Times office — or to the airport, where I grow my carbon footprint even further.

So I couldn’t help but consider my own complicity while reading a new study from USC researchers, finding that Angelenos who drive more tend to be exposed to less air pollution — and Angelenos who drive less tend to be exposed to more pollution.

It may sound like a paradox, but it’s not. It’s a function of the racism that shaped this city and its suburbs, and continues to influence our daily lives — and a stark reminder of the need for climate solutions that benefit everyone.

My colleague Terry Castleman wrote about the study, which was published in the peer-reviewed journal Urban Studies. The core finding is that for every 1% increase in miles driven to and from work by people who live in a particular part of L.A. County, there’s an estimated 0.62% decrease in the lung-damaging “fine particulate matter” to which those Angelenos are exposed.

How is that possible? I asked the study’s lead author, Geoff Boeing, a professor at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy.

He told me it largely comes down to the shameful history of Los Angeles County’s low-income communities of color being torn apart to make way for freeways — a history that has been extensively documented by The Times. Today, many residents of the county’s whiter, more affluent neighborhoods — who were often able to keep highways out of their own backyards — commute to work through lower-income Black and Latino neighborhoods bisected by the 10, 110 and 105 freeways and more.

“It’s not like commuters are coming in and shopping in those communities, patronizing restaurants,” Boeing said. “They’re just driving through to get from one side of the city to the other.”


Boeing’s family moved to South Pasadena — the “ultimate suburban flight story,” as he put it, and a place with a “terrible racial history.” Residents of the relatively affluent, predominantly white city were able to block construction of the 710 Freeway through their neighborhoods. As a result, he told me, truck traffic from the ports of L.A. and Long Beach ends up routing through lower-income neighborhoods in Alhambra, a city whose population is overwhelmingly Asian and Latino.


Overall, though, the map shows how residents of whiter, wealthier communities disproportionately drive to work through lower-income Latino and Black neighborhoods, spewing pollution. Residents of those neighborhoods can’t do much about it.


Boeing was careful to note that the study doesn’t conclusively prove that patterns in how Angelenos get to work are solely responsible for different levels of air pollution in different communities. Majority-white Westside neighborhoods, for instance, could also be benefiting from ocean breezes that push pollution into predominantly Black and Latino areas, he said.

But the researchers’ close examination of driving patterns, commute distances and pollution — which involved a combination of data analysis and modeling — painted a clear picture of environmental injustice, Boeing said. In addition to the link between air quality and miles driven, his team found that non-white communities face higher pollution levels across the board.

So what do solutions look like? Getting more people into electric cars is definitely one of them. {snip}


Building more public transit could make a difference, too.  {snip}


I realize it’s not on my shoulders alone to make up for a long history of racist housing policies and freeway construction. The same goes for you, if you’ve also benefited from that history. Finding ways to minimize and reverse ongoing inequities, while solving the climate crisis, is a project for all of society — government, industry and individuals alike.