Here’s one easy way for cities to fight air pollution

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The inversion happens when air pressure acts as a lid on Utah’s valleys, keeping all the pollution inside and down low where people are.

Utah’s inversion is already bad, meaning our air quality is the worst in the U.S. Cities around the state are attempting various strategies to fight this terrible problem, ranging from doing nothing (most cities) to Salt Lake’s fantastic transit program.

But here’s one thing they could all do that would help: cut free parking for government employees.

I was struck by the obviousness of this idea while reading Provo’s temporary solution (as it works on policy changes), from Mayor Curtis’ blog:

• Encourage employees to not drive at lunch, but walk to a near-by restaurant and/or run errands on the way home;

• Try avoid refueling but if you need to do so, adjust your schedule to do it at the end of the day and don’t top off:

• Try to eliminate as many non-essential vehicle trips as possible, bundle inspections and other trips and travel at non-peak times as needed.

These are all good ideas and I bet the good employees of Provo will actually do them. Sometimes. For a while.

Eventually, though, they’re going to have to run an errand or two. Or it’ll just seem too cold outside to walk anywhere. Or the inversion will end for the year and it’ll be back to the same old thing — until next year when the problem comes back as usual.

My point is that without incentives or disincentives, we’re basically just hoping that an insignificantly small number of people will change their behavior out of the goodness of their hearts.

That won’t work. We need economic solutions instead.

Cutting free parking creates those incentives/solutions. It rewards people who choose better behaviors, and charges those who still choose to drive. It’s also more fair to everyone else in the city; we’re all subsidizing government facilities and I don’t know why we’d want to pay for other people’s parking as part of that.

More importantly, cutting free parking would incentivize lifestyle changes, which are the only thing that is really going to make a dent in our pollution. Without free parking, suddenly there’s an economic reason to live within walking distance of work places. You’re still free to live out in the sprawl, but with paid parking, you’re shouldering more of the burden you’re creating. Over time, the elimination of free parking for city employees — just like the elimination of any free parking — should help prompt denser, more efficient and more environmentally friendly neighborhoods.

Of course, I’d be in favor of cutting all free parking, but the great thing about starting with city facilities is that it’s a relatively small group that’s being affected; in other words it’s not going to infuriate all the voters. In fact, in Utah, it should please the often-conservative voters because it would mean less waste and fewer subsidies.

Many city employees in Utah would no doubt hate this plan. But at this point we’re not going to actually make a dent in our air pollution problem without some uncomfortable lifestyle changes. Something like this also would make a tiny dent in the problem, but it’s an important paradigm shift that would snowball as neighborhoods became more walkable.

I also don’t mean to pile on Provo. The city is laudably working on policy changes and the suggestions I quoted above are just a short term idea from an administration that I very much respect. Instead, my point is just that a general strategy that seems common in Utah — asking people nicely not to drive so much — is never going to work. Thankfully Provo, Salt Lake and a few other places seem to get that. Unfortunately, however, most other cities don’t.

In any case, if we want to make a difference we need to reward good behavior and penalize the opposite.

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