Bay Area’s air is cleaner, but we can still do more 

The Bay Area may not be the first place in California that comes to mind when talking about smog. Certainly Los Angeles and the Central Valley evoke pictures of hazy skylines laden with particulate matter.

Fighting traffic congestion, and its attendant smog and emissions problems, however, has long been one of the Bay Area’s most intractable problems. Just last month, the San Francisco metropolitan region for the first time in years was removed from the American Lung Association’s list of the top 25 most polluted regions in America. Its annual State of the Air Report analyzes the amount of ozone and airborne particulate matter in cities around the country.

This is a credit to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. For years, the agency was widely derided as toothless and captured by heavy industry. But in the past 10 years, the district has stepped up its game, implementing strict wood-burning restrictions several days of the year, which are called Spare the Air days. Since 2004, particulate matter in Bay Area cities has dropped as much as 30 percent.

And California’s government is moving even more aggressively to curb pollution. The state’s Air Resources Board recently set a goal to cut greenhouse gases in half by 2025, in part by encouraging the production of a million zero-emission vehicles. State Sen. Leland Yee has proposed legislation to empower the air quality district to require businesses that employ more than 50 people to offer free shuttle service or subsidize public transit or van pool options. The bill was approved by the state Senate this week.

All of these are welcome developments. For all our concerns about the environment, the Bay Area’s air pollution has been a major embarrassment for decades. We are happy to see that the region’s leaders have taken this problem seriously, and that they have made such progress.

But the Bay Area still has a long way to go. The region has recovered from the Great Recession at a much more rapid pace than the rest of the state, with social-media companies and Silicon Valley leading the charge. People are coming back to the Bay Area, and they are bringing their cars.

If we’re going to accommodate these new residents, we will need new housing, particularly near the centers of job creation. Sadly, San Mateo County, which is about as close to the Bay Area’s economic epicenter as one can get, has not done its part. According to a regional planning body, the Association of Bay Area Governments, housing construction in San Mateo County failed to meet increased demand by 37 percent between 1999 and 2006, the very time when developers were most eager to build units.

Farther south in Santa Clara County, Palo Alto officials recently sent a lengthy complaint to the association arguing that its housing-construction mandates were onerous, citing the impact of intensive development on the local community, among other factors.

This is not the right approach for a city that generates so much of the region’s growth. We share Palo Alto’s desire to preserve its local character, but more and more Silicon Valley employees are coming, and they will either live in Palo Alto or some other nearby city. If we are going to grow responsibly and continue the trend of reducing air pollution, every city will have to do its part.

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