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.

To this end, major local employers have been dealing with the Employee Trip Reduction Program. Any company with a worksite employing 100 or more people must deal with ETR.

(This whole field is rife with abbreviations and acronyms like ETR, so get used to them. They save time and space.)

ETR -- Employee Trip Reduction, remember? -- which stresses carpooling and ride-sharing, rose from the federal Clean Air Act amendments of 1990. The affected companies have to concoct a plan to show how by 1996 their employees will meet an average passenger occupancy goal of 1.47 people per vehicle, a marked increase from the community-wide commuter average of 1.1 per vehicle.

The big stick in this scenario is held by the feds, who can withhold highway funds from states if progress isn't shown by 1996. The federales also can lean on Texas by doing things like prohibiting the opening of new industrial plants in Texas. The 1990 amendments also give the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to issue fines without first going to court, and, if all else fails, the public can sue corporations for not abiding by the act's mandates. The ultimate federal deadline for Houston's compliance is 2007.

The state of Texas can levy fines against specific corporations that are deemed uncooperative. The state's "or else" part of the program includes a civil penalty of up to $25,000 per day per violation, or an administrative penalty of up to $10,000 per day per violation. It's a step-by-step process whereby firms can be fined for not submitting a plan, for not having a plan approved, for not reporting periodically or for not making the necessary revisions to achieve their goals.

Just how serious these threats are is open to question, but some people perceive them as real enough to get states and some employers to come up with plans, if not serious action.

Government types from the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission are banging the drum loudly about ETR, promising widespread corporate cooperation, a dramatic rise in carpooling and a measurable improvement in air quality. Others aren't so sure.

Neil Carman worked twelve years as a field investigator for the Texas Air Control Board, which together with the Texas Water Commission was folded into the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission in September 1993. The new combined commission is responsible for ETR and the monitoring of air pollution. Carman lives in Austin and is now the director of the Clean Air Program for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. Carman thinks ETR is a nice idea, but he is a tad skeptical about who will cooperate and how state environmental officials will monitor compliance at the area's thousands of worksites.

In a telephone interview, Carman asked, "Do they have the troops to go out there and enforce the rules? They can get everyone's plan and say it looks fine to them, but I'd be absolutely shocked if they really go after anybody very much. Oh, they'll write a threatening letter, but that just looks good on paper... I don't think this [ETR] is very popular in Texas. This is an election year. I don't think they're going to go after them very heavily."

Texas has already fudged some deadlines. There were staggered deadlines for Houston- and Galveston-area corporations to submit ETR plans: employers with more than 400 workers had been told to file plans by May 15 of this year. July 15, September 15 and November 15 were the deadlines for smaller companies. That's scrapped now. Plans are due either September 15 or November 15.

"One of the problems at this point is they don't have the resources to go out and do much with this," said Carman. "What they've done is postpone it, but I think that raises some legal issues about the federal Clean Air Act."

About 1,200 companies missed a September 1, 1993 deadline merely to register with the state. Close to 600 companies still haven't bothered to fill out and mail in a one-page registration form. The state has sent a series of letters, and so far 1,801 worksites have registered. Those worksites have 640,000 workers.

"I see companies trying to find ways to get around these laws," Carman said. "So far we haven't seen continuous compliance by industries in Texas with either the state or federal clean-air laws."

Houston's main air-pollution problem is with ground-level ozone, the principal component of smog. The other measures of air pollution are nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and lead. Ground-level ozone is not to be confused with the much-discussed hole in the ozone; that hole has to do with the protective ozone in the stratospheric layer of the earth's atmosphere.

Ground-level ozone is a "secondary" pollutant formed by the photochemical reaction of hydrocarbons, nitrous oxides and sunlight. These precursor elements, called "volatile organic compounds," come from vehicular exhaust, large industrial sources, small businesses and "consumer activities" such as aerosols and power lawnmowers.

(Before scoffing at power lawnmower abuse, consider this: the January 1994 Scientific American reports that American lawns cover about 25 million acres, an area about the size of Pennsylvania. An hour of gasoline-powered lawnmowing emits pollutants equivalent to those produced by a car driving 350 miles. So beginning in 1996, all gasoline engines under 25 horsepower, including lawnmowers and chainsaws, must have catalytic converters to reduce emissions.)

The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission estimates that in the Houston-Galveston area, petroleum-powered transportation accounts for about 26 percent of polluting emissions, or 279 tons per day. Consumer activities add another 11 percent. Large industry emits 484 tons a day, or 44 percent of the total. More than half -- 52 percent -- of emission reductions are expected to come from large industry. Transportation is scheduled for 26 percent of the reduction goal. Changes in consumer activities are expected to yield just 6 percent of the reductions.

In that mix, solo drivers may seem like a minuscule part of the puzzle. In a way they are, but this program is also an educational process. John Hall, chairman of the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, thinks Texans need to see their behavior as part of the pollution problem. "Ordinary citizens have not made the connection between air pollution and the cars they drive," Hall said.

Hall's point man in Houston is John Gillen. Gillen and two -- count 'em, two -- other TNRCC staffers are responsible for ETR in Houston. Gillen is the overseer, regularly making presentations about ETR to area groups. He deals with corporations as they devise their plans. He has received some negative feedback in person, as he talks to local commuters about what they view as the state's new intrusive activity.

"Before, it was putting pollution-control equipment here or issuing a permit or standard exemption there," said Gillen. "We didn't have a lot of impact on you and me as everyday citizens, on our lifestyles. But everything we're coming out with is really going to alter our lifestyles, ETR being one of them."

For those cranky citizens who confront Gillen with protests about how he should be leaving them alone and instead be messing with the real culprits -- the big industrial plants along the Houston Ship Channel -- Gillen has an answer.

"I tell those people: 'We are messing with them. We have been messing with them. We're not relaxing any regulations associated with the petrochemical industry or any industry that has air pollutants. We're tightening the reins in on them continuously.'

"We're messing with other sources because mobile sources make up about 36 or 37 percent of our problem in this area," Gillen said. "As a part of the strategy to control ground-level ozone, you can't rule out reaching out and grabbing whatever you can grab and reducing it."

The reason that state and federal governments are grabbing whatever they can to reduce air-pollution levels is pretty fundamental. There is mounting evidence that air pollutants, both directly and indirectly, contribute to increased sickness and death among the unfortunate citizens who have little choice but to breathe the air available to them. Many researchers link increasing incidence of asthma and other respiratory disorders to the chemical cocktail included in each breath of air.

A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine questions so-called "safe" levels of air pollution. In a study of six cities over 11 to 16 years, researchers found that even in cities where air quality met federal standards, air pollution likely contributed to higher death rates from lung cancer and cardiopulmonary disease. In this study they measured PM-10s -- particulate matter such as dust, soot and sulfates smaller than ten microns.

The Sierra Club's Neil Carman points to lenient EPA safety levels as the problem. The current "safe" PM-10 level is 150 micrograms per cubic meter, but the study looked at levels above 50 micrograms per cubic meter and found increased mortality -- that means more deaths -- from that level on up.

"Cities all over Texas had levels over 50. Houston had a whole bunch of [readings over 50] last year," said Carman, emphasizing that even though that level was judged not to be in violation, it could still be considered dangerous to your health.

Since diesel emissions are a major source of PM-10s, one way to approach the problem would be to put filters on all diesel-burning buses or to switch to alternative fuels such as natural gas, Carman said.

The ETR program would not directly address the PM-10 problem, but the continuing disagreement between environmentalists and state officials over how to measure air-pollution levels pertains to ground-level ozone as well. The ozone level currently considered safe is 120 parts per billion. In the '70s, it was 80 parts per billion. Carman thinks the newer standard is too high.

"Because so many cities and counties were having compliance problems making people meet the 'speed limit' for ozone, they just said, 'Well, we'll just relax the standard. Since everyone is speeding or since so many communities are speeding, we'll just drop the standard by 50 percent, from 80 to 120.... Even though we know people have health problems over 80 parts per billion, we're going to relax the standards and let things get worse.' That's how I see it. The standard we have now is a very, very poor standard.

"It's like taking a school zone and saying 15 mph is the speed limit, but we're going ahead and bumping it up because people have to get to work and we can't have them slowing down for schoolchildren."

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."

Marcia Lowe, a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, thinks the costs of sprawl are catching up to Houston.

"Planners need to look at it as something they have to get realistic about," Lowe said in a telephone interview. "You can't just endlessly expand, you can't just give in to this trend of one person per car and doing every trip by car and driving long distances ,because we just don't have the room to lay down more highways. We don't have the funds to do it and we're going to run into Clean Air Act violations."

Changing ingrained behavior won't be easy, particularly when the cost of road construction, parking and auto-generated pollution are seldom directly or consciously paid by the driver.

"Basically, it's really cheap to drive alone," Lowe said. "If gas is cheap and parking is free, why not drive by yourself? There's no penalty for doing so.

"One of the most powerful ways of changing people's behavior in a way that's still fair is to charge for parking. People tend to think more about the economics of it when they realize they're paying to leave their car somewhere."

One way to get people to leave their vehicles at home is to provide responsive and convenient mass transit. For many cities, that includes a modest light-rail option. Immodest monorail options, such as the one Houston tried and dropped, are pretty much limited to Disney World.

The new light-rail system in Portland, Oregon is working well, Lowe said -- partly because it was accompanied by downtown parking restrictions. The city's population density of 2,450 people per square mile is more compact than Houston's, but it's nowhere near New York City's (5,270 per square mile) or Chicago's (3,775 per square mile).

"It depends on the accompanying policy," Lowe said. "Unless Houston is serious about working on its land use and making drivers pay more of the cost of parking and maybe even use of the roads, unless it's willing to do those things, light rail wouldn't work. You can't just plunk down tracks and put spiffy new rail cars on it and think that's going to be the answer. You have to have good supportive policies."

One idea being billed as a way to decrease traffic congestion and therefore ease the commuting crunch is the "smart highway." To the extent that it could ease jams and gridlock, it could also ameliorate air pollution.

The "smart highway" concept would rely on street and highway electric sensors to feed data to a traffic management center that would in turn moderate traffic lights and issue radio alerts to control traffic. There are several problems with this program -- the main one being that easing traffic congestion usually encourages more driving.

In a study by Texas A&M's Texas Transportation Institute, Houston actually dropped from the second most-congested city in 1982 to the tenth most-congested in 1990. That doesn't mean there's less traffic -- just that it's not as congested. More traffic can still mean more pollution.

Another problem is that smart highways would do little to encourage mass transit and in fact could deal it another blow. If you want to figure out who will profit from this, look at the groups lobbying for it in Washington, D.C. The Big Three automakers, IBM and AT&T all stand to profit from smart highways and are bankrolling their D.C. promotion, according to Worldwatch's Marcia Lowe.

Lowe believes that the same computer-assisted technology should be used to boost mass transit, not solo drivers. One way to do that would be to have not smart cars, but smart buses. If you lived in an outlying area and you weren't on an obvious bus route, then you could actually dial up a shuttle bus, much like a jitney cab, that would come when you needed it.

"That's a technology that's been used for ten years in Europe," Lowe said. "At a bus stop there's an interactive computer terminal and you just input the information, where you want to go and it computes other passengers along a way that would work out."

Germany has had smaller buses using this method for years, and the Netherlands has upgraded the idea. "These technologies were on the verge in the '70s, but funding got cut off because the energy scare was over, as far as the policy-makers thought," Lowe said.

"They're known technologies. It's an application of the same kind of stuff that in Houston is being proposed to be used on cars. They want to make smart cars, a little computer on your dashboard so you can input where you're going [and it will] tell you the best route to take," she said.

This expensive tactic is currently being proposed for the benefit of the individual driver. The same technology could be used to even out the balance between mass transit and cars, making mass transit more effective than it is -- and certainly more appealing, compared with driving your car alone.

"They've really got their hands on deep pockets of money from Washington to do this, and as far as I can tell, it's just going to make Houston even more dependent on the one person per car," Lowe said.

"They need to include mass transit in a serious way, but overwhelmingly it is just geared to more of the same," she said. "It's a tremendous lost opportunity, in addition to a lot of money being wasted."

Though smart highways may deliver less than many might like, science does hold out some hope for emission control. How quickly close-to-zero-emission vehicles are developed likely will depend on how well government edicts and timetables motivate industry and inventors.

Worldwatch's Chris Flavin said, "The history of this is automotive manufacturers always claim these things are impossible to meet when they're first proposed and that they're going to cost a fortune, but when push comes to shove, they end up being relatively easy to achieve and relatively cheap.

"That happened with the catalytic converter, that happened with the air bag and that will happen with these new California emission standards."

Emissions today are much better than way back when: today's cars are 70 to 80 percent cleaner than autos were in 1970, when the first version of the Clean Air Act was passed. Trouble is, there are lot more vehicles on the road today, and many of the pollution-control devices deteriorate over time. New federal standards will be 90 percent less lenient than 1970 levels.

California does have a better standard, requiring its cars to be 95 to 98 percent better than they were in 1970 and 10 percent of its cars to have zero emissions in 2003. Most of those "zero-emission" cars will be electric cars.

Flavin foresees an "ultra-low-emission car" that is 99.5 percent cleaner. The basic concept is an internal-combustion engine, a gas turbine or a fuel cell that produces electricity for the car by using a very small engine operating at only one speed. Flavin believes that this could occur within the next ten years. "I would never use the term 'totally zero emission,' but I would call it a virtually clean car," he said.

"You can really fine-tune the pollution-control device," Flavin said. "You're operating at super efficiency levels all the time. That kind of a technology produces a more efficient car, using 150 miles per gallon. Those technologies are well on the way."

But Texas should not wait for this wonder car, Flavin said. Its arrival, along with other technological progress, could be hastened by governmental action. Massachusetts and New York have adopted California's rigid emission standards, and Flavin thinks Texas should follow suit. California adopted tougher standards because its air is that much worse, and so more stringent rules are needed.

Flavin said, "Texas is making a huge mistake by sticking with these weak federal standards when you could have the California standard, which is much stronger, and it would encourage the use of Texas natural gas in your cars -- rather than Middle Eastern oil."

Old clunker cars, particularly those made before 1975, should be weeded out somehow, since one such car can produce as much pollution as 50 new cars.

Technological advances, more stringent emission standards, more sensible driving habits and something like the Employee Trip Reduction Program are all needed to reduce ground-level ozone pollution. "You need a mixture of all these kinds of things," Flavin said. "There's no single magic bullet."

Still, old habits die hard. Gillen is not surprised that he meets resistance when he advises commuters to consider giving up their solitary ride to and from work. Before his stint with the state pollution folks, Gillen was a park ranger in north Texas.

"One of the hardest things we did as park rangers was to cut off vehicle access to a part of the park. We in this country feel we have a right to drive our automobiles wherever and whenever we please. So it is hard. We all have that mindset. It's what we have become accustomed to. It's going to take changing some behavioral patterns. Can we really change those behaviors? I don't know.

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