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Idling, drive thru fast food windows & Valley air quality
dennis Wyatt web
Dennis Wyatt

On a billboard heading south on Oakdale Road between Riverbank and Modesto you will see a larger-than-life photo of Ceres Mayor Chris Vierra.

The message with Vierra's image implores people to "avoid the drive through." It is a reference to the verified fact that idling cars pollute much more than vehicles that are moving.

Vierra happens to be the San Joaquin County representative to the San Joaquin Valley Air District board. Each of the eight counties involved has a representative. You will see their images periodically on billboards throughout the Valley offering educational tips to the public on how they can do their part to improve air quality.

Let's go back to drive thru windows. Given the San Joaquin Valley is the nation's worst - or second worst depending upon the criteria - air basin when it comes to air quality issues, you'd think it would be a no brainer to ban drive thru windows for all new retail construction.

The City of Davis - the Berkeley of the Central Valley - a number of years back proposed exactly that. You'd have thought they were telling residents they were banning all liberals from residing in the city.

The just-out-of-puberty politically correct crowd might slam climate change doubters while alluding to research that isn't exactly ironclad but threaten to take their ability to make a run for Taco Bell or to have a Big Mac Attack at Mickey D's without leaving their car because of well-documented data and you're committing heresy.

That's the funny thing with most people in the climate control debate. It's always do as I say, and not as I do. Leonardo DiCaprio loves to lecture people about their carbon footprint but most of us are like dwarf Munchkins compared to his King Kong on steroids footprint with his jet setting lifestyle.

When it comes to air quality/climate control most of us - including the save the earth zealots - tend to do the talk but not the walk.

In modern cars, exhaustive studies show that after 10 seconds of idling you are starting to create more pollution than restarting a car. That same research shows that idling is harder on your engine than when the car is moving.

City general plans - the state-required document that serves as a blueprint for growth - references broad policy statements that growth should take into account air quality issues.

That means putting solutions in place that aren't simply a refinement of development patterns rooted in the post-World War II boom.

Traffic roundabouts that have been known to irk some drivers simply because they exist, are a prime example of a development tweak that makes sense on at least four levels.

• They allow traffic to keep flowing through busy intersections with minimum stopping and no prolonged sitting;

• They make it safer for pedestrians to cross as it slows down traffic;

• They are typically cheaper to install than traffic signals and have much lower ongoing maintenance costs;

• They reduce traffic idling that in turns reduces pollution.

On Coffee Road at Claratina Avenue, not far from where you will find the Chris Vierra billboard happens to have a "rural" roundabout where a busy road intersects a fairly well-traveled two-lane road.

Cities - just as Modesto is now doing - need to opt for roundabouts where ever it is feasible to eliminate traffic signals or busy four-way stops. Manteca and other jurisdictions also have started requiring roundabouts in new development near parks and schools to improve pedestrian safety while also slowing down traffic.

It would seem the next logical step would be to ban new drive thru windows from being created or - at the very least - an aggressive educational program complete with signs at existing and new drive thru windows advising people to turn off engines their engines while waiting in line.

Again, modern vehicles use less fuel and pollute less when they are restarted to the point idling a vehicle more than 10 seconds means they are using more gas and polluting more while going nowhere. Restarting a vehicle stopped for a traffic light makes no sense. A drive thru window is entirely different.

Air district staff members point out that if we took every car and truck off the road and stopped using farm and construction equipment and banned trains within the eight counties we still wouldn't be able to meet some federal and state air quality standards.

It's true that our air is more than 50 percent cleaner in the San Joaquin Valley as opposed to 25 years ago despite the population increasing by about half.

We need to pick the low hanging fruit that still remains. Among that fruit is discouraging pointless idling, employing roundabouts, and phasing out two-stroke engines for yard tools.

The Diamond Bar Air District in Southern California has research that weighed in on two-stroke gas-powered yard tools such as leaf blowers as being among the top three sources for specific air pollution in the Los Angeles Basin.

If we can make further inroads in air quality by passive designs such as roundabouts, educating people about idling, and replacing gas-powered yard tools with electric versions then that's what we should be doing.

None of the three is un-doable nor do they require a massive change in our lives.

We can avoid drive thru windows as Vierra implores for maximum effect or we can at least change how much time we spend idling.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.