The Los Angeles region faces two conflicting problems. We know from landmark research conducted right here in Southern California that people living next to freeways are exposed to dangerously high levels of pollution that can put them at greater risk of asthma, heart disease, preterm births, reduced lung function in children and premature death.
Yet the region also has a severe housing shortage that has caused rents and home prices to spike. With fewer empty plots on which to build, developers are increasingly putting homes on lots right next to freeways. A Times analysis found that the city of Los Angeles approved 4,300 new homes near freeways in 2015 — more than in any year during the last decade. And it's not just L.A.; the report highlighted several projects approved in other cities despite air quality regulators' objections, including a suburban housing development in Chino that will be located 100 feet from the 60 Freeway, a freight corridor heavy with toxic diesel pollution.
What is the greater good? Provide plentiful and affordable housing wherever it can fit, even if it's on a site bathed in pollutants? Or bar development along freeways to protect future residents, even if that makes it harder to ease the housing crunch?
The answer is probably a bit of both. Cities should prohibit housing directly adjacent to freeways unless the projects include a buffer and are designed in a way that lessens exposure. Yes, tailpipes are getting cleaner, but California is still decades away from having all electric or pollution-free cars and trucks on its roads. In the meantime, it's irresponsible to continue to allow residential buildings with windows and balconies overlooking 12 lanes of traffic, like some recent projects. This is putting children at risk of developing lifelong ailments.
Surely there is another use for land that abuts a freeway. Office space, perhaps, or indoor malls, storage centers, parking garages? The state has warned against building homes within 500 feet of freeways, and some researchers say 1,000 feet is safer. But that amount of buffer may not be practical in communities crisscrossed by freeways. Hence the need for other uses of that land.
Granted, requiring a large buffer could conflict with a strategy some communities are using to reduce car trips and air pollution: building housing near transportation hubs and transit stations (which often are near freeways). If cities do allow housing within 500 feet of freeways, research has shown that both sound walls and a thick planting of trees can reduce the amount of pollution. Those measures should be required, as well as high-quality air filtration inside the buildings, which the city of Los Angeles now mandates for all new homes within 1,000 feet of freeways. Some developers have even designed their projects to put the hallways and elevators on the side of the building that abuts the freeway, with apartment windows and ventilation facing away from traffic.
Cities and developers can't just throw up their hands and say, "We have a housing crisis," to justify building in dangerous places. We do have a shortage of housing, but that doesn't negate the need to build safe, healthy places to live.