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L.A. residents who drive less are exposed to more air pollution, study finds

Despite conventional wisdom, not everyone drives all the time in Los Angeles. Those who don’t appear to pay more in terms of the air they breathe than big car commuters, according to a new study.

Researchers at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy concluded that residents of wealthier, whiter areas exported air pollution to the neighborhoods around their commutes.

“There is a consistent inequity in exposure to air pollution,” said Geoff Boeing, an assistant professor at the school and co-author of the study.

Previous studies have shown that “there is a statistically significant difference in exposure levels, particularly at home locations, between white groups and non-white groups,” Boeing said, adding that those most exposed to noxious air are “mostly black and Spanish groups”.

Given what he called a “fundamental injustice,” Boeing and his co-authors set out to answer a related air pollution question: Are you exposed to more than you produce?

What they found was that when controlling for every other variable possible, residents who drove more were exposed to less air pollution, and vice versa.

They also noticed a clear racial effect.

“Even if you control for everything else, a whiter region will be exposed to less air pollution,” Boeing said, referring to census geographic areas of about 4,000 people.

Boeing used the examples of Bel Air and Baldwin Hills to illustrate his point. Both are relatively affluent areas, but the whiter area – Bel Air – is much farther from highway infrastructure, increasing driving times for residents and decreasing their exposure to air pollution.

As a Bel Air resident, “you have to drive more to meet your daily needs, but you’re further away from where pollution is generated,” he said.

On the other side of the equation, he pointed to Pico-Union and Boyle Heights, where less wealthy people are more “reliant on public transportation or walking or biking” — likely causing less air pollution while being “surrounded on all sides by highways.”

Racial discrimination around the construction and use of roads is not accidental, say experts. Interstates 5, 10, and 110 were built across black and Latino neighborhoods, while highways proposed to traverse whiter, wealthier areas in Reseda, Laurel Canyon, and Beverly Hills were discontinued.

Boeing and his team also ran commuting simulations to model the routes drivers from different areas take to work.

“Drivers from whiter tracts tended to cross tracts that were much less white than their own tracts,” he said, noting that the models “showed a lot of excessive driving from whiter communities in black and brown communities in the LA basin .”

The reverse situation, in which people of color commute through whiter communities, was much less common, he said.

Times staff writers Liam Dillon and Ben Poston contributed to this report.