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The Toothless Official Response to Air Quality Emergencies

10:36 AM EDT on September 27, 2011

What happened last week in California's San Joaquin Valley happens all the time in cities across the country, especially during hot summer months.

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Air quality levels reached dangerous levels, especially for people with respiratory and heart conditions, the very young and the very old.

In the Fresno suburb of Clovis, it got so bad that the city was issued a $29 million fine. That penalty will be spread among the region's drivers, at a rate of $12 each, and the money will be used to retrofit diesel engines and for other such tactics to reduce pollution.

Meanwhile, as this air quality emergency is taking place, public environmental officials responded the way they do across the country: issuing press releases imploring people not to idle their vehicles, to avoid mowing their lawns, and to avoid unnecessary driving.

All of this strikes James Sinclair at Network blog Stop and Move as a bit counterproductive, especially given the many ways government entities are actively encouraging polluters:

I'd give $10 to meet a single person who read the warning and decided to not drive that day. "What, I didn't even know about that," said Clovis resident Holly Rollis. Many Clovis residents were unaware that their area could push the Valley over the limit when it comes to meeting federal air quality standards. The fact is, only people who read the newspaper are aware of this issue, and how many of those readers will be bothered to take any action?

This is especially stupid because we have one agency begging people to drive less, and not use drive-thrus, but then we have other sides of government approving new highways, wider roads, and more fringe development. Does every bank, fast food chain and pharmacy need not one, but two drive-thru lanes? Build them and people will use them. Asking people to refrain from using the drive-thrus that are the prominent feature of many new retail developments simply does not work.

Instead of begging people to abstain from behavior the government not only condones but actively subsidizes and encourages, why don't these air quality officials take decisive action, like enforcing black-outs or imposing additional fees on drive-thrus, or ticketing cars that are idling near schools during air quality episodes, Sinclair asks.

Of course, some crowds will immediately respond with the "get government out of my freedom to idle!" These people are incredibly selfish, and do not understand that we have set up government to regulate activities which are harmful to others. Your 6 minutes at the drive-thru may be the reason an old lady has to stay home all day using her asthma medication. When your freedom to be lazy takes away the freedom for someone to breathe, we have a problem.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Active Transportation Alliance explores the compelling economic support for public bike-sharing. The Austin Contrarian scratches his head over the confused response from "Antiplanner" Randall O'Toole to Ryan Avent's new book, The Gated City. And Bike Portland reports on the region's search for the person who has been dumping carpet tacks in area bike lanes.

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