Protecting Our Health Near Busy Roadways

When it comes to real estate, the adage is “location, location, location.” The same could be said for public health and housing: research continues to show a link between housing’s proximity to busy roads and concerns such as asthma, lung cancer, heart attacks, dementia, autism and childhood obesity.

For a startling example, look no further than Los Angeles, California. A sobering analysis published by the Los Angeles Times found that “officials have approved thousands of new homes within 1,000 feet of a freeway – even as they advised developers that this distance poses health concerns.”

Los Angeles’ situation likely mirrors other metropolitan areas across California and the nation as planners and policymakers push to expand housing supply and often target development near transit corridors in hopes of reducing car trips as a means of reducing pollution, including greenhouse gases.

But there are trade-offs: even as regional pollution declines, pollution near busy roadways may be increasing, exposing nearby residents to a slew of pollutants including ultra-fine particulates which can bypass filters in our lungs and go straight into our bloodstream.

New tools are also making it easier for stakeholders to assess risk. For example, the U.S. EPA has released its Community LINE Source Model to estimate roadway emissions. In the Bay Area, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District has released its Planning Healthy Places guidelines and interactive map to assist planning efforts.

Scientists and air quality advocates have been pushing to keep housing away from busy roads for years, and policymakers are starting to catch up. In Los Angeles, for example, city officials are discussing a range of steps to reduce risk, from buffer zones to design standards. A continued push for zero-emissions passenger and freight vehicles will help, too.