A "blueprint" for future development, a General Plan is a community's view of its future self, and includes a series of goals and policies which city leaders and staff will look to when making land-use decisions. From a public health perspective General Plans are significant insofar as they guide land-use decisions and identifies city priorities, both of which can have a profound influence on community health. For example, a plan can highlight a City's commitment to developing pedestrian, bike and transit-friendly streets and neighborhoods. If realized, such environments integrate activity into everyday tasks, with long-term physical and mental health benefits for residents and visitors alike.
While encouraging "transit-oriented development" (or TOD) is generally a good idea - greater use of public transit is associated with higher rates of "active transportation" (i.e., walking, biking) and the many accompanying health and environmental benefits - concentrating development along congested highways is increasingly viewed by the scientific community as a recipe for poor health.
Why? For one residents of housing near busy freeways are exposed to significantly higher levels of air pollution than those who reside only a few blocks away. In a landmark 2004 Children's Health study, USC researchers found that children who live within 500 feet of a freeway - about one block - contracted asthma at higher levels. Since then a growing body of research has found that those who live adjacent to freeways are at higher risk for impaired lung development, heart disease, and cancer. Other researchers have found that proximity to freeways increases expectant mothers' risk for premature birth, as well as having children with autism (a copy of the latter study can be found below).
The above video was taken at the Metro Gold Line Lake Station on Tuesday, December 4, 2012 at about 2pm.
Decisions made long ago placed three of the Pasadena's six Metro Gold Line stops in the middle of the congested 210 freeway. Although doing so permitted use of an existing right-of-way without intersection crossings, it also burdened riders with a host of issues, from poor air quality to noise pollution and impaired access for pedestrians who must cross freeway on/off ramps to access the stations.
For those who have never had the experience of standing on a station platform in the middle of the 210, imagine standing in the middle of a freeway. On your way to work. 5 days a week. During rush hour transit users are directly exposed to the fumes of thousands of cars and trucks. When traffic is flowing more smoothly they must contend with the noise pollution of 70+ mph traffic. The noise pollution alone on the platforms is such that it is difficult to carry on a conversation or phone call because of the traffic noise.
Fortunately there are manners of alleviating some of problems associated with existing station locations and City's proposed land-use changes. For example, other transit systems around the country like MARTA in Atlanta have lessened noise pollution by installing sound walls or enclosing the stations. Steps can also be taken to make the stations such as Lake Ave. safer and more accessible for pedestrians and cyclists, including the installation of high visibility crosswalks and pedestrian priority crossing signalization. Both would help reduce pedestrian-automobile collisions associated with the failure of speeding traffic entering/exiting the 210 to yield to pedestrians.
Unfortunately mitigating air pollution near freeways is not as easy to address. Tree buffers and orienting windows away from the pollution source can help, but fine particles created by car exhaust, tire rubber, and brake dust, just like tobacco smoke, find their way through windows, cracks, ventilation systems and even the best air filtration systems. Even closed triple-paned windows doesn’t keep the pollution out.
As it is there is already a surfeit of freeway-adjacent housing in Pasadena, and large multi-family complexes lining parts of the 210 are not going anywhere. The question is where the City should encourage future growth. If we listen to the science, it’s clear that placing residents, especially children, close to a freeway is a recipe for poor health.
In 2011, city leaders recognized drifting tobacco smoke as a serious danger to public health and banned smoking in apartments and condos. This choice should be far easier. Air pollution from freeways, like tobacco smoke, can’t be easily contained. City leaders and staff should acknowledge the science and limit further housing density within 500 feet of a freeway. At present three of the City's proposed "Transit Villages" surround Metro Gold Line stops in the middle of the 210 Freeway at the Lake, Allen and Sierra Madre Villa Gold Line stations.