Environmental experts and activists are sounding the alarm on Boston’s air quality, with high asthma rates as an economic boom fuels the region’s worsening traffic congestion.
“This is not going to get better on its own,” MASSPIRG Transportation Director Matt Casale told the Herald yesterday. “If we don’t do these things and the city continues to grow, I am very concerned about the air quality.”
According to the transportation analytics firm INRIX, Boston has become the seventh-most congested urban area in the nation. That, combined with a 2017 Department of Public Utilities report, which revealed there were approximately 64.8 million ride-hailing service trips, the potential for Amazon to bring 50,000 jobs here and a major casino opening next year, is causing experts to say it’s time the city looks toward the future.
“It’s good that the city and state are growing, but it’s really important that as the city continues to grow, we are adequately preparing for the people who live here to not be affected in a negative way,” Casale said. “If we don’t move forward, it’s going to be a problem.”
Although Suffolk County so far has received high grades for ozone and other pollution measures from the American Lung Association, Casale said asthma rates in areas of the city with high traffic have been increasing. A 2018 Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America report listed Boston as the 11th most challenging place to live with asthma and ranked the city fourth nationally for asthma prevalence, with the state recording asthma rates at 10.2 percent for adults and 12.9 percent for children.
“Increasing traffic, if not met with big technological changes, will contribute to air pollution problems,” warned Boston University environmental health professor Jonathan Levy. “The good news is that air quality is better than it was 20 years ago. But technological solutions may not be able to keep up with the trend of population density.”
Levy added: “Clearly, there’s a number of air pollutants admitted, when vehicles are moving slowly or idly. People are exposed to them longer. Anything that is going to increase congestion, we’re worried about. We have to try to find ways to try to mitigate congestion.”
Tufts University environmental professor Mary Davis predicted that additional traffic to and from the Encore Boston Harbor casino in Everett will add to pollution problems in an already congested area.
“I have no idea what their plan is, but it’s already a mess,” Davis said. “I can tell you at times it’s at a standstill.”
But Davis said there are measures that can be taken. She is working on a study that suggests Boston’s new parking policy, pricing neighborhoods differently depending on demand, may have improved the city’s air quality by reducing “cruises,” or cars circling blocks looking for parking.
“There are a lot of things we should be doing,” Casale said. “The way we build needs to be done in a smart way. There needs to be an increase in investment of public transportation and the third thing is to electrify our transportation system. This has increased significantly nationwide. It’s the future of transportation. As a city, we need to prepare for the influx of electric vehicles.”