Just Don't Breathe It

What Houstonians can -- and probably won't -- do to clean up the air they drive through

A good part of Houston's air-pollution problem is, well, Houston: almost one-third of Space City's ground-level ozone pollutants are produced by automobiles, trucks and buses.

Years ago, during the black-gold rush of the '70s and early '80s, the sprawl and far-as-the-eye-can-see traffic were often a point of perverse pride. Now Houston's vast, haphazard urban expanse could cost the city beaucoup bucks for non-compliance with the federal Clean Air Act, in the form of state fines and loss of federal highway funds.

To avoid those possible penalties, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Committee is trying to herd more than 2,000 Houston-area worksites into the Employee Trip Reduction Program, an attempt to promote carpooling and mass transit so that the average number of passengers in commuting cars can increase to 1.47 from 1.1. That's one part of a plan to reduce ground-level ozone to acceptable federal levels.

The environmentally aware in Houston are of two minds about the government's attempt to get Houston residents to drive less and carpool more. They think that's always a good idea, but they have no illusion that such a mild-mannered approach, with only the implied threat of fines, will appreciably change people's behavior or the area's air quality.

The task is monumental because Houston, through its layout and the habitual driving of its citizens, gives new dimension to the term "auto-dependent." If planners had set out to build a city designed to waste gasoline and force residents to spend too much time in their cars, they couldn't have done a better job. Of course, the very premise that Houston had planners at all is altogether hypothetical.

Chris Flavin, vice president for research at the nonprofit Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C., believes that Houston is exhibit A in the case against the modern, sprawling, largely unplanned city.

"We've built our urban environment, particularly the one in Houston, in a way that the car is essentially a necessity," Flavin said in a telephone interview.

"The most important, long-run thing is the way you design your cities. That's where Houston, if you don't mind my saying so, is totally screwed up. It's used around the world as being the example of insanity, in terms of uncontrolled development.

"We're getting beyond transportation and talking about how cities are designed, how much power you allow the real estate industry," Flavin said. "That's the reason you have the problem. This was not caused by God. This was caused by stupid human decisions."

Those decisions helped produce a city of 1.6 million people spread over the 581 square miles within the city limits. The metropolitan area, with about 3.4 million people, has a population density of roughly 1,755 people per square mile. In a study of 50 large U.S. cities, only twelve had fewer people per square mile. The most sparsely populated was Nashville, with 1,130 people. The most dense was New York City -- with 5,270.

In a city so spread out, it is awfully difficult to provide financially feasible or accessible mass transit. Two other options, walking and bicycling, would be defeated by distance -- even if the necessary bikeways or sidewalks existed, which they don't.

The reason for all this fuss is that Houston is a "severe nonattainment area for ozone," which is government-speak for a place where the air is hazardous to your health. When it comes to bad air due to ozone, Space City, U.S.A. is second only to Los Angeles, which is quite literally in a classification all by itself: "extreme." The ranking is based on the number of days a city's air exceeds an acceptable level set by the Environmental Protection Agency. In 1992 Los Angeles had 142 such days. Houston exceeded it on 29 days. The next-highest offender was San Diego, with 19 days. No other city broke into double figures. Los Angeles has been given until 2010 to fix its air completely. Houston has until 2007.

Whatever the timetable and obstacles, the environmental edict is clear. To help clean up Houston's air, solo drivers had better start taking on riders, or their employers risk state fines and the city could lose millions in federal highway funds.

What is less than clear is just how serious the environmental officials in Austin and Washington, D.C. are about this edict, and if it goes far enough to improve Space City's insidious air.

The well-intentioned plan appears to be a hard sell in Houston: messing with any local driving habit conflicts with the stereotypical Texan spirit of self-conscious individualism. In that regard it is not unlike gun control, but "car control" promises to have a more pervasive effect on Houston than any gun-control proposal.

Imagine the opposition. Imagine the bumper stickers: They can take my car when they pry my cold, dead hands off the steering wheel. Or, When cars are outlawed, only outlaws will have cars.

Unlike right-to-bear-arms advocates, loners behind the wheel can't point to any constitutional amendment that guarantees the right to cruise. Somehow the Founding Fathers failed to provide any safeguard protecting the freedom to drive indiscriminately.

Actually, "car control" is not exactly what this is all about. Cars are already registered, inspected and taxed. No one is out to confiscate cars; the goal is to moderate their use and maximize their efficiency, and in so doing help clean up the air we breathe.

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