Saturday, September 28, 2013

Berkeley/Oakland port and highway air pollution map

"Don't cut corners on the location, as the rest you can fix up later when you have the money." - that was the advice I received from folks who in search of cheap land, had built a cohousing complex next to the BART elevated tracks a few decades ago.

Whereas those treating housing as a commodity can easily trade up to a better neighborhood, when establishing a community find it harder to move.  As folks have expressed interest in purchasing or building new housing, transportation access has been mentioned as something not to skimp on.

The flip side to transport is pollution.  Oakland is one of the largest container ports in the world and is full of freeways.

Air Pollution Hazards: Cars, Trucks, and Container Ships.
Freeway health risks are well known, with the first block downwind being extremely hazardous and problems persisting for another 700-1500' depending on whether the freeway is elevated.

The effects of port pollution from the container ships is a bit harder to track down, but based on public health asthma and cancer data it appears to be most severe in the first couple of miles, with effects as far as 20 miles away.  In areas near the ports, pollution can be over 10 times the regional average.

Ships are basically barely-regulated ocean-going power plants, spewing sulfur dioxide, particulates, and other pollutants in quantities far beyond what is allowed for vehicles registered in the USA.

 Click map to enlarge.  Heavier lines are elevated freeways.  

Fight for cleaner air, but for now, build elsewhere.
Many of these heavily polluted areas in Emeryville, West Oakland, Chinatown, and Downtown already are home to thousands of residents, and port and freeway air pollution have been a major environmental justice issue.  In recent years, community activists have demanded and won funding from the Port to upgrade trucks to reduce diesel pollution.

The Port has goals to reduce total pollution by 85%, though it expects to fall short on controlling ship pollution (only a 67% reduction is projected) as Oakland and California have little ability to regulate the international shipping industry. 

As a result, even though the pollution has decreased and will continue to decrease, it is still much worse in these areas than the rest of the region.  Therefore, in the near term, it would not be prudent to create new housing in this area and subject more people to risk.

Driving further out is not the solution.
While the origins of suburban housing came from an era of even worse industrial pollution, relocating to the suburbs may not necessarily lead to better health as drivers and bus passengers are subject to heavy air pollution while on a freeway.  Until shipping gets cleaner, the best plan may be to avoid the areas closest to the docks while remaining near BART stations. 

Could Oakland remove its freeways like San Francisco did?
In the 1990s and 2000s, San Francisco removed a couple miles of downtown freeways, clearing up dozens of blocks for housing and making several neighborhoods much more liveable.  Mass transit, biking, and trip reduction have made this possible without major traffic problems.  Right now, roughly 25% of Oakland is within the downwind zone of a freeway - could it do the same?

More Resources:

- Bay Area Air Quality Management District CARE Program
- Port of Oakland Emissions Inventory
- Port of Oakland Maritime Air Quality Improvement Program
- Pollution, health, and avoidance behavior: Evidence from the Ports of Los Angeles
- Southern California Particle Center