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October/November 2014

Bay Area Monitor History, Part I: Dawn of the Clean Air Era

By Leslie Stewart

A new federal mandate, with penalties for non-compliance within a short time frame, requiring major changes in how states, local jurisdictions and the public behaved — in 1970, this was the Clean Air Act. Unpopular in car-loving California, it needed ambassadors to explain it to audiences ranging from uninformed to hostile. The League of Women Voters took on this issue in the Bay Area; 40 years later, the focus is still central to the Bay Area Monitor.

The 1970 Clean Air Act, replacing a limited and weaker version from 1967, authorized the newly created Environmental Protection Agency to penalize states which did not meet the new stronger standards within five years. It mandated changes in car emissions and industry practices, but what dismayed local jurisdictions most was a line which was put into the legislation at the last minute, requiring “land use and transportation controls” in state air quality plans if necessary to meet the federal criteria.

In a 1971 press release from the EPA, Administrator William D. Ruckelshaus warned, “If we are to meet the legal deadline for carbon monoxide, then, some cities may have to require drastic changes in their commuting habits.” Because auto emission controls would not have an immediate impact, many areas would not achieve compliance until the 1980s, he predicted.

Looking back from a world in which most cars have catalytic converters, industry emissions are heavily controlled, and an extensive network of mass transit serves the region, it is difficult to remember what an upset the new air quality legislation created. In the Congressional Record, Senator Ed Muskie, a major sponsor of the Clean Air Act, acknowledged the extent of the changes that would be required: “[T]he whole complex of residential patterns, employment patterns, and transportation patterns – the way in which people move about, go to their work, and live … must be modified if the objective of clean air is to be achieved.” Muskie went so far as to suggest that “the use of motor vehicles may have to be restricted.” California’s love affair with the car was under attack.

It’s also hard to remember how a group like the League of Women Voters had to structure an educational outreach program in a world without social media — in fact, without much local broadcast media. Approached by EPA Region 9 Administrator Paul DeFalco to run a grant-funded information effort in the Bay Area, the League initially developed a filmstrip presentation for community groups. Content focused on the link between transportation and air quality, a new concept for many at the time, and on some of the ways in which communities could change, such as adding mass transit.

Adelia Sabiston, former longtime air quality director for the LWVBA, remembered that “the format was obsolete so quickly that when we wanted to use the film on KQED a few years later, none of their equipment would run it.” The League rapidly moved on to a more traditional presentation with slides and trained speakers.

EPA’s next grant to the League funded a “Transportation Alternatives Project,” structured to take advantage of the “observer corps” that most local Leagues already had in place to monitor local elected bodies such as city councils. Reports from these observers, together with information acquired by the project manager, Holly Hollingsworth, contributed to a series of reports tracking transportation and land use decisions around the region that could affect the progress toward meeting the clean air standards. The project found a temporary home in the offices of Berkeley’s Claremont Hotel, where the newly-formed Metropolitan Transportation Commission shared space with the Association of Bay Area Governments.

By 1975 — the original deadline for compliance with 1970 Clean Air Act standards — so many officials, planners, and activists were focusing on the air quality impacts of transportation and land use that it became clear the League’s reports had a growing audience. The League of Women Voters of the Bay Area decided to hire Hollingsworth as the editor of a new publication to track these issues. Called the Bay Area Monitor, it was “aimed at motivating the public to reduce motor vehicle pollution emissions in order to achieve better air quality and improve the quality of life within the affected community,” according to a letter of introduction signed by Geri Stewart, the League’s president at the time. The first issue, still funded by the EPA, appeared in May 1975.

Leslie Stewart is the most recent former editor of the Bay Area Monitor.

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