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Opinion: Here are just 2 ideas that will reduce air pollution without punishing motorists

We all agree we need to clean the air. Let’s look for the greatest positive impact with the least adverse side effects

In a courtroom, contesting parties can agree to a “stipulation of facts;” these facts are accepted as undisputed evidence. This approach saves time so the court can focus on the disputed issues.

Tim Jackson

This approach offers a model for policy debates, as well. When we agree on common facts and shared values, we can move more quickly and efficiently to solutions.

The air quality discussion in Colorado offers a perfect example. No matter our perspective, I’m hopeful we can agree that:

  •  Everybody deserves to breathe clean air.
  •  No one likes our views of the Rockies obscured by haze.
  •  This summer’s Front Range air was really bad.
  •  A lot of the pollution blew in from California wildfires, and a hot, dry summer raised ozone levels.
  •  While Colorado has high background levels of ozone, a lung irritant, human-caused sources also contribute to ozone pollution.
  •  As Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg recently noted, we should focus policy on air pollution sources that we can control.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Can we also agree that these air quality strategies should maximize benefits while minimizing negative side effects?

In cancer treatment, a new generation of “precision medicines” offer alternatives to standard chemotherapy. The goal is to target cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone.

We can take a similar approach to target major sources of air pollution instead of one-size-fits-all overreaching approaches that broadly hurt our economy and quality of life.

I propose that our “stipulation of facts” should encompass one more point: Most Coloradans own vehicles because they find great value in them as reliable ways to get to work, school, and recreation.

A car is one of the most expensive things people will ever buy. They would not make this investment if they didn’t see a huge upside for themselves and their families. If public transit or bicycles were a better value, they would rely on those options instead.

We could talk endlessly about how to convince more people to ride RTD or bicycles and we can wonder about how people might move around today if Front Range cities had evolved differently.

This talk may be interesting, but it just creates hot air without addressing pressing air quality challenges.

On Nov. 15 from 5-7 p.m., I stood with a few colleagues at South Broadway and Bayaud Street to count commuters and their preferred modes of transportation. We had done this twice before but wanted to see if patterns had changed.

They had not:

  •  Cars in the middle three lanes transported 4,212 people, or 97.3% of the total.
  •  RTD buses in the dedicated right lane carried a total of 99 commuters or 2.3%. Each long, articulated bus had just a handful of riders.
  •  We counted just 18 bicyclists or 0.3%. Half of those used the dedicated bicycle lane, while the other half (plus one brave skateboarder!) used the bus lane.

If you question our count, I invite you to spend two hours doing it yourself. Please let me know if you find different results. If not, let’s make a stipulation of facts that these numbers are accurate.

What if, instead of pursuing transit or bicycle pipe dreams, we focused on how we can do things today to make the greatest positive impact with the least adverse side effects (like traffic congestion that wastes time and energy and adds to pollution)?

To start a more constructive discussion, I offer two high-impact, cost-efficient strategies:

1. Instead of punishing all drivers with anti-car policies that make it harder to get around and lengthen commutes, let’s focus on the small percentage of high-emitting vehicles. As author Malcolm Gladwell has noted, groundbreaking research by the late University of Denver Prof. Donald Stedman showed that relatively few cars produce most pollution. Newer, well-maintained cars – no matter what technology they use (gas, hybrid or electric) – are incredibly clean. Colorado’s new car dealers have recycled nearly 6,000 old high-emitting vehicles through a voluntary program. Incentives are needed to scale up this strategy and increase its impact.

2. Let’s also offer incentives to replace gas-powered lawn equipment. A New York Times column recently cited a 2011 study by Edmunds that found that hydrocarbon emissions from a half-hour with a two-stroke leaf blower are about the same as a 3,900-mile drive in a 6,200-pound Ford F-150 SVT Raptor. The California Air Resources Board says using a commercial leaf blower for one hour emits as much smog-forming pollution as driving a 2017 Toyota Camry from Los Angeles to Denver.

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Let’s create financial support to encourage low-margin, hard-working lawn care businesses and weekend gardeners to transition to zero-emissions electric equipment. The impact would be enormous without resorting to a punitive ban like California just implemented.

These are just two examples of solutions that don’t pit one group of Coloradans against another and could help us make quick progress together to clear Colorado’s air. I would like to hear your ideas.


Tim Jackson, of Denver, is CEO of the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association. Twitter: @TimWJackson


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We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable. This reporting depends on support from readers like you.