I went to a concert at the Fox Theater a couple of weeks ago. The performer, who lives in Los Angeles, paused at one point in the show to describe his descent from the Tejon Pass into the San Joaquin Valley. "You have this amazing view as you come down the mountain," he said, "and then you see this ..."
If he finished his sentence I didn't hear it because half the crowd turned to a row-mate and, with a mix of laughter and resignation, finished it for him: "blanket of smog." Or words to that effect.
A psychologist might characterize our collective mindset on this subject as fatalistic acceptance. It's here, we don't like it, but what are we going to do? And so we don't.
Bakersfield's smog is someone else's fault, we say. And there's enough truth in that statement for us to feel put-upon and exonerated. Dirty air wends its way down from the Bay Area, runs into the horseshoe-shaped trap of our three conjoined mountain ranges and just hovers. Long-haul truckers and other non-local travelers race down Interstate 5, on the valley's west side, spewing soot and carbon emissions as they go. And lately we hear that some sort of weird jet-stream vortex is injecting ozone from China into our skies. What next, fumes rising from the bowels of hell?
The truth is, though, we've enjoyed playing the victim for so long, we can't seem to summon the collective will to actually do anything about it. Several noteworthy efforts aside, it seems we haven't even tried. Everyone acknowledges that cars idling at fast-food drive-thrus pollute the air, but no public official I'm aware of has ever suggested a ban or moratorium on their proliferation. Everyone acknowledges that leaf blowers are, at best, huge nuisances and, at worst, contributors to our omnipresent cloud of particulate matter, but, you know, we don't want grass clippings on our sidewalk.
Addressing those issues would be relatively small steps. On a broader scale, our county supervisors might want to start weighing the worthiness of proposed new projects based on their air (and water) quality impacts first and tax-base potential second, not the other way around. But the biggest, most challenging, most controversial change we should collectively consider involves what is, for many of us, our most prized possession: our vehicles.
The evidence is in, and the consensus is that electric cars are net-benefit components when it comes to air quality. They've made only a small dent in the local new-car market, but their day is coming, make no mistake. The federal government and the governments of several states are building increasingly robust charging infrastructures. Electric cars, or EVs, can run for 100 miles on a single charge, making them perfectly suited for running around town and medium-range commuting. Their range limitations worry people, but, soon enough, as charging stations continue to multiply across the state and battery technology improves, that will be a non-factor.
Detractors claim that EVs are no cleaner than fossil-fuel powered cars because, instead of coming out of millions of tailpipes, the emissions simply belch out of the power plants that deliver electricity to all of those charging stations. Not true. Even in cities where coal is the primary fuel for electricity generation, EVs are cleaner than the typical, new gasoline-powered compact car. In the areas of the country where natural gas drives power generation, as in the West, the difference is even more pronounced.
Bottom line is, this transportation transition isn't going away.
The city with the worst air in the U.S. ought to be looking at every possible solution, no matter who's pushing it. Lungs know no party affiliation. Our city council, county supervisors, and state and federal representatives need to step up. Might the valley be worthy of emergency federal incentives? Should this entire region be declared an air-quality enterprise zone? Those are unprecedented (and admittedly ill-defined) answers, but intractable problems call for creative solutions.
One thing that I know won't help: We can't just shrug and continue to play victims of circumstance.