Marek Warszawski

Want to make a dent in Fresno’s unhealthy air? Stop driving your kids to school

Why do so many parents drive their kids to school? Because they think it’s the safe, responsible thing to do.

Time to reexamine that supposition. In reality, parents who drop off and pick up their kids every day contribute more than they probably realize to our region’s poor air quality. Which adversely affects the health of their own kids – and everyone else’s, too.

Every year, starting in mid-August and continuing into September, officials at the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District see an uptick in ozone, an invisible pollutant that triggers asthma and can cause a litany of breathing ailments.

What triggers this ozone spike? According to Jon Klassen, the district’s director of air quality forecasting, it’s directly related to the hot, stagnant weather of late summer and the increase in nitrogen oxide caused by a surge in morning car trips.


“What happens at this time of year with school starting up is there are a lot of NOx (nitrogen oxide) emissions happening earlier in the morning and all at the same time,” Klassen said.

“And since NOx is a precursor to ozone, the more NOx there is the more potential there is for ozone to be formed. So instead of NOx being spread out over the day, so much is happening in the morning that it kick-starts the whole ozone formation process and we see even higher levels in the afternoon.”

In other words, the long line of cars and SUVs you see idling outside many schools in the morning creates pollution that lingers well into the afternoon. Making a bad breathing situation even worse.

What’s the solution? Stop, or at least decrease, this twice-a-day ritual.

Almost half the kids driven to school in private vehicles live within a mile of campus, according to the air district’s Healthy Air Living Schools program. Meaning if more kids walked, biked, skated or scootered that short distance or simply took the bus, the dent in our air pollution would be noticeable.

“No question,” Klassen said. “If enough kids were walking and riding their bikes all those added (vehicular) emissions that would’ve occurred aren’t happening.”

Safety is an obvious reason why parents drive their kids. Some schools in parts of Fresno don’t have bike lanes nearby or even sidewalks leading to them. Others are located on busy streets bustling with car traffic.

But that isn’t the case everywhere. The elementary school two blocks from my house in Clovis has bike lanes, crosswalks and extra-wide sidewalks surrounding it. The Dry Creek Trail is right across the street.

Driving not really the responsible choice

Yet every weekday morning and afternoon, 10 months out of the year, a long line of cars spills out of the parking lot. Mom and dad wait with engines running blissfully unaware of the pollution they’re causing.

There’s also this notion, built up by a century of automotive lobbying and marketing, that driving is the responsible choice. And so the practice of dropping off and picking up your kids from school becomes The Way Parents Are Supposed To Do Things.

For those of us living in one of the nation’s dirtiest air basins, that logic creates more harm than good.

Air district spokeswoman Jaime Holt brought up two more factors I hadn’t previously considered. First, air pollution has a larger effect on kids because the volume of air absorbed by their lungs is proportionally larger than in adults.

Second, the tailpipes of most cars and trucks sit right at mouth and nose level with young elementary school kids.

“When enough people are idling their vehicles, especially outside a school, it really can have an impact on a young child’s health,” Holt said.

Schools become ‘No Idling’ zone

To combat this, the air district has a “No Idling” campaign designed for school zones. Depending on the type of car you own, idling a vehicle for more than 1 or 2 minutes creates more emissions than turning off the engine and restarting it.

Certainly, electric cars and hybrids that go into electrical mode while idling don’t contribute to the problem. It’s also true that newer gasoline-powered cars are cleaner than older models.

Problem is, studies show people in the Valley keep their cars longer than in other parts of the state. Meaning on average, our cars pollute more.

I can’t tell anyone not to drive their kids to school. That’s a personal choice. But it’s a personal choice that has far-reaching implications.

At the very least, something to consider while you wait at the curb, with engine running, for little Joey or Jenny.

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Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.