Just Don't Breathe It

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

Because some people who suffer from asthma or allergies tend to have problems with ground-level ozone readings over 80 parts per billion, the 120 p.p.b. level does not please Carman.

"I'm not extremely optimistic," Carman said. "The pollution problems are very serious, worse than what the EPA is telling us."

Meanwhile, back at the Employee Trip Reduction Program, multiple approaches are being offered to address a basic fact of Houston life. This is a metropolis where the question "How did you get here?" is invariably answered "I drove," and the question "Who with?" is usually followed by the reply "myself."

It should come as no shock that the "average passenger occupancy" for Houston is 1.1. The state defines APO as "the number of employees arriving at the worksite divided by the vehicles in which the employees arrive." For Harris County, the goal is to increase that to 1.47. For the outlying eight-county nonattainment area, the goal is 1.41. That may sound modest, but such an increase has yet to be recorded by any similar civic program, and that includes striving-to-be-environmentally-correct California.

The multiple approaches include ride-sharing, carpooling, vanpooling, mass transit, bicycling, walking, alternative work schedules and telecommuting (which means not commuting but working from home via computer and modem or other office equipment).

Briefly put, ride-sharing is at least two people riding to work together. Carpooling is two to six workers sharing a ride. Vanpooling consists of seven to 15 workers using a van to get to work. Vanpooling allows the driver to commute for free and have personal use of the van, which is provided by a leasing company or the employer. The driver fuels and maintains the van, and riders divide the operating and insurance costs and make a monthly payment to the driver or employer.

A "buspool" is rarer, since it requires at least 16 people to make it cost-effective. In this approach, employers purchase or lease buses to transport workers. Metro also offers "subscription buses," with special routes provided to specific areas for companies that identify a ridership.

Mass transit, even in this urban sprawl, is an option. It may be more attractive to corporations because the new federal energy bill allows them to subsidize up to $60 per employee per month for the cost of transit fares or vanpools. For those workers taking an express bus that runs only at rush hour, Metro's guaranteed ride home option allows three free midday cab rides home per year if a commuter has an emergency.

As part of ETR, each company with 100 employees at a worksite can avoid fines by submitting a plan to give those workers the greatest incentive to get out of a single-passenger car and into some alternative mode of transportation.

The TNRCC's John Gillen continually has to remind his audiences that partial improvement is okay, provided there is improvement. "The tough thing is to get people out of the mindset that everybody has to carpool every day, or that everybody has to take the bus every day. It's just not true. If you can get 100 percent participation, that's wonderful, and if those people rotate, you and I might only have to carpool twice a week -- the other three days, we can drive our own cars, by ourselves," Gillen said.

Employers are allowed, by state rules, a certain number of single-passenger-vehicle trips per week. They just have to reduce the total number of single-passenger trips, by a variety of means, to increase average passenger occupancy and reach the goal.

One method Gillen personally has adopted is the compressed work week. He works a "9/80" shift, completing 80 hours of work in nine work days. This translates into having every other Friday off, yielding one less commute every two weeks. A 3/36, with three twelve-hour days making a work week, and a 4/40, with four ten-hour days completing a week, are other options.

These alternative work schedules are designed to appeal to workers, and they do help ease traffic and pollution, but Gillen sees them as only a small part of the overall solution. Gillen emphasizes that a variety of methods can contribute to compliance.

"We're not going to tell the companies how to get to 1.47," Gillen said. "But the drop-dead date to be at 1.47 for Harris County and 1.41 for outlying areas is 1996. That's a lot to do in two years."

The environmentally inclined have a bit of a problem with the Employee Trip Reduction Program and with the state and federal governments' efforts to enforce compliance with the Clean Air Act. On one hand, advocates want to encourage any attempt to improve air quality. On the other hand, they see ETR as a fair-to-middling response to an extremely serious problem: chronic dependence on the auto, with the attendant pollution, negative impact on quality of life, and the hidden costs of wasted land, free parking and road maintenance.

People need to drive less, rely on mass transit more and generally rethink their lives. And local and state government officials, elected and non-elected, need to look at the big picture and the long term, not the nearest pothole and the next election.

"We have to get people out of their cars," Neil Carman said. "Employee trip reductions are good, but it's not going to be nearly enough. If we had even stricter standards for ozone, ha, they'd be telling people to take a holiday two days a week because Houston would be facing sanctions."

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