New Study Finds Aging Gas Vehicles Cause Significant Pollution in California’s Low-income Neighborhoods and Communities of Color

Residents in Impacted Areas Also Face Higher Barriers to Cleaner Transportation

Published Jun 6, 2023

Oakland, Calif. (June 6, 2023)—Older gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles significantly contribute to air and climate pollution, while also being costly to fuel and maintain. The harmful environmental, health and economic impacts of aging vehicles disproportionately fall on Latino and Black Californians, lower-income households, and formerly redlined communities, according to a new study by the Union of Concerned Scientists and The Greenlining Institute.

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While passenger cars and trucks manufactured before 2004 represent just 19% of registered cars in California, they are responsible for the majority of tailpipe pollution because they produce higher amounts of lung-damaging particulate pollution and harmful emissions that drive climate change, the analysis shows. Older vehicles also contribute significantly more smog-forming nitrogen oxide emissions than newer vehicles.

California’s emissions regulations on new vehicles will reduce tailpipe pollution as less-polluting vehicles gradually replace older cars and trucks, but additional equity policies and investments are needed now to expedite that shift as well as to fund public transportation and other mobility options.

“It can be difficult for low-income drivers to replace their older vehicles,” said David Reichmuth, senior engineer in the Clean Transportation Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “California must prioritize getting the most polluting vehicles off the road by continuing to invest in equitable incentive programs to help people switch to cleaner models that are more affordable to operate.”

The study shows that neighborhoods with the highest exposure to fine particulate pollution from older vehicles are all in the southern half of California, mainly in central Los Angeles, but many aging cars and trucks are also located in rural communities. The majority of these highly polluting vehicles are registered in neighborhoods that have a higher percentage of Latino or Black residents, and in those with lower-than-average household income.

“Redlining and deliberate government policies relegated people of color to areas surrounded by busy roads, freeways, ports, and other freight corridors filled with high rates of toxic tailpipe emissions,” said Román Partida-López, senior legal counsel for Transportation Equity at The Greenlining Institute. “Limited by economic constraints stemming from the lasting legacy of this discrimination that deprived communities of color of wealth-building opportunities, Black and Latino Californians too often find themselves bound to older, less fuel-efficient vehicles that jeopardize their health.”

In addition to adverse public health impacts, the lower fuel economy of aging cars makes them more expensive to fuel and maintain. When gas prices are high or these older cars break down, it makes it more difficult for California families who rely on them to get to work and school.

Adequate funding is necessary for clean transportation programs that support low-income families and communities of color. Unfortunately, the governor’s proposed budget includes an overall $1 billion reduction in zero-emission vehicle programs that will jeopardize affordable access to cleaner mobility options for those communities.

“California recently took action to protect frontline communities from the toxic tailpipe emissions from trucks by adopting the Advanced Clean Fleets rule,” said Reichmuth. “Now the state needs to turn its attention to getting these aging, polluting vehicles off the roads in those communities and provide cleaner and more reliable mobility options for their Latino, Black and low-income residents.”

“As a national leader in the transition to clean transportation, California has a responsibility to prioritize communities of color that face the highest barriers to participating in that change, yet endure the worst consequences of vehicle pollution,” Partida-López said.