A growing body of research shows that living next to a freeway can significantly increase the risk of asthma, heart disease, pre-term births, reduced lung function in children and premature death. Yet Los Angeles continues to approve residential developments next to freeways without imposing strong measures to protect the residents.
Case in point: the Da Vinci apartment complex, half of which was destroyed by fire last week. It was built 10 feet from the busy 110 freeway, with balconies overlooking the traffic. That's much closer than the 500-foot buffer zone that state air quality officials recommend for residential projects. Air pollution monitoring in Los Angeles has shown that levels of carbon monoxide and dangerous ultrafine particles are extremely high on and next to freeways and that the pollution doesn't dissipate until almost 1,000 feet away.
In an attempt to cut potential pollution exposure, city planners required that developer Geoffrey H. Palmer install special air filters in the Da Vinci's ventilation systems — which wouldn't really help much if people opened their windows or balcony doors. Yet when Times reporter David Zahniser inquired, city inspectors discovered that the developer hadn't installed the equipment needed to accommodate the stronger filters. Palmer ended up adding the equipment, but the filters won't be effective without regular replacement — something the city does not follow up on once a project is complete, unless there's a complaint.
Los Angeles and other cities need to adopt stronger measures when approving development along freeways. About 13% of the land zoned for residential use in Los Angeles is within 1,000 feet of a freeway. It's unlikely the city could stop all new housing projects along major roads, but authorities can and should do more to ensure that projects are built to minimize the health risks. That could include requiring buffer zones between residential units and freeways, reconfiguring site plans to move windows and balconies away from traffic and mandating the installation and regular maintenance of the highest-quality air filters. There may be situations in which the requirements for building next to a freeway are impossible for a residential project to meet, in which case the land may be better suited for a commercial or industrial use.
Housing advocates are understandably wary of putting too many restrictions on new development in a city that already has a shortage of housing, and especially of affordable units. But given what we now know about the tremendous risks of living with concentrated air pollution, it's simply irresponsible to put homes near freeways without demanding significant protections for future residents.