The days leading up spring turned out to be less than magical in Paris. The season the most popular for the French capital ended up blanketed in smog so thick that the prime minister needed to come up with a way to keep cars off the streets in the middle of the work week. Employing an idea used frequently in parts of Asia, where air pollution is chronic and relentless, cars with license plates starting with an even number were prohibited from driving one week day. Cars with odd numbers were barred the next.
In theory, the strategy was designed to cut in half traffic and pollution from cars. In actuality, many French people stayed true to their revolutionary spirit and were willing to incur the 22 Euro ($30) fine for breaking the rules. But in the end, it turned out to be enough. After three days of the scheme, the French government lifted the ban. All cars and trucks were welcomed back.
The celebratory honking, however, masked some of the questions about air quality that are as imposing as unwanted smog. Paris wasn’t solving a new problem—poor air quality has been around for decades. It was simply finding a band-aid solution for a recurring and growing problem. On the upside, air quality in most cities is dramatically better now than it was 10 years ago, largely thanks to emissions guidelines that limit certain pollutants, and in the U.S., the Clean Air Act. But on the downside, cities being cloaked in pollution so thick that economies grind to a halt is a problem unlikely to go away.
Two in ten Americans live in cities with higher-than-healthy levels of particulates in the air, according to the American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air report. That amounts to 44 million people—to say nothing of the 140 million who breathe elevated levels of ozone. Consider a future where more people need to go more places faster and the trend lines head in the wrong direction.
Pollution isn’t just a matter of cutting down on the number of carbon-belching cars and replacing them with hybrids. That’s been happening, but not fast enough to brag about. Air quality is also a question of geography and climate. Cities in places with geologic barriers around them—Los Angeles for one—have always had smog issues, and likely always will. Temperature makes things worse. Particulates go further and move faster in a warmer climate. More warm days means more smoggy ones.
It’s a classic tragedy of the commons, where each person’s stake in a public good like air quality is minuscule compared to his personal benefit of, say, driving his own car to work. What’s the answer? As hipsters migrate toward cities, the more nuanced solution is some type of mix of public transportation and cleaner tech. But that could take decades. To hurry things along, moving to one of America’s cleanest cities such as Rapid City, South Dakota, couldn’t hurt.