Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Wasatch Front Air Quality: It Starts, and Ends, With Government

Capitol to locals: "You're the problem."
A Utah policy website has an article up called “Wasatch Front Air Quality: It Starts, and Ends, with Us,” with the ultimate implication being that each of us is responsible for local air quality problems. Indeed many in the Utah legislature feel as if the solution to our air quality issues lies not with modified laws, but with the collective, benevolent and individual actions by local citizens. They are wrong. While, yes, cars aren’t driven by robots (yet), Wasatch Front residents are only responding to incentives provided by state and local governments.

First and foremost, state officials refuse to price gasoline at rates that would make alternative fuels and non-car based transportation competitive. Local officials often throw up their hands and lament the fact that green technologies just aren't competitive as if it's a fact of life. But this is the fault of state politicians. Twenty-first century transportation solutions require money to develop and implement (ie, electric charging stations, natural gas fuel stations, etc). Gas, oil, and the combustion engine were first used in the late 1800s and the corresponding legacy infrastructure from that fact makes gas very cheap compared to the health and environmental issues its combustion causes. If politicians actually care about our winter air quality issues, they need to raise the gas tax to make non-car based options transportation options competitive.

Second, the local officials are the ones deciding on UTA’s funding. If UTA is not convenient for you, this is likely a failure of YOUR state representative in the legislature. UTA does what it can with the funds it gets. Overall, if cars are significantly more convenient for us Utahns than buses, this is the fault of the Utah state government. There’s no universal law that states that it needs to take an hour on a bus (or several buses) to travel the same distance as a 10 minute car ride. There is also no universal law that public transport passes can't be subsidized state wide (as SLC has done, to its credit) or that UTA can't be free for everyone.

In addition, there are numerous local zoning laws, which are the fault of SLC and other local cities, which discourage density and make it so that driving or buses are necessary in the first place. SLC zoning ordinances, for example, limit the height of buildings (even in the city center), which pushes construction out to the suburbs and increases vehicle use and decreases air quality. Zoning laws by SLC and other local cities also require buildings to come with a minimum amount of parking (as if the builder couldn't make that decision), which often over-allocates space to parking lots, making the building-to-lot ratio smaller than it would be via the free market.

Also, it’s the state and city governments which decree that roads are to be primarily for private vehicles use. Why should every lane be dedicated to vehicles? Many countries have bus rapid transit (BRT) programs that feature dedicated lanes for buses, which makes these systems not only good for air quality, but also fast and convenient. 

Overall, if the air is dirty, it’s because local politicians don’t understand the power of incentives.

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