Free buses will not end pollution

By Wang Min-ling 王敏玲  / 

Fri, Dec 08, 2017 - Page 8

The Kaohsiung City Government last month announced a three-month trial program, which began on Friday last week, to make its bus system completely free of charge and its metro system free of charge during rush hours.

The announcement came after environmental groups suggested that the government make public transportation free on days when the air quality index (AQI) reaches unhealthy levels.

Being somewhat different from what the groups had proposed, the Kaohsiung program has received mixed responses since its announcement.

Supporters argue that before the air quality is significantly improved, providing free public transportation is a good way of using the government’s air pollution control fund because it would encourage people to use public transportation and would reduce vehicle emissions.

Furthermore, using public transportation could mean less time people spend exposed to air pollution.

Those opposing the program describe it as an attempt by Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu (陳菊) to “bribe” voters and leave a positive legacy, saying that it will not improve air quality much, as it does not address the root cause of the pollution.

Before concentrations of PM2.5 — airborne particles measuring 2.5 micrometers or less — can be reduced to specified standards, which would take several years, any measures that can help improve air quality deserve the government’s full support.

Before PM2.5 became a subject of widespread public discussion, Kaohsiung and Pingtung County residents had already been inhaling unhealthy levels of PM2.5 and ozone for years, which means many could already be at risk of developing lung cancer.

Environmental groups have also proposed giving out free masks and providing additional benefits for residents of heavily polluted areas, such as air purifier subsidies, reduced National Health Insurance premiums, discounts on lung cancer screening tests for long-time residents and building more indoor sports arenas with air purifiers in Kaohsiung and Pingtung.

However, none of these measures address the root causes of air pollution. As a result, it is not immediately clear whether using the fund for the proposed measures can be justified.

Some people might wonder if the fund is sufficient to pay for all those measures and if paying for some of them means not being able to pay for others.

To answer that question, people should ask whether the government is receiving enough in air pollution fees from pollution sources. People’s health cannot wait, and prevention and protection should go hand-in-hand.

Factories and power plants are the primary sources of domestic air pollution.

While the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) advises the public to stay indoors when the AQI reaches unhealthy levels, people still have to go to work.

The government has for a long time overlooked the importance of public transportation, and Kaohsiung and Pingtung residents have been forced to rely on themselves. A natural consequence of this is the widespread use of scooters to commute and take children to and from school.

Although Kaohsiung built a metro system several years ago, there has been little incentive for its residents to choose it over their own vehicles, unless they live close to one of only two lines of the Kaohsiung Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system.

People living far away from MRT stations need to make a bus transfer or ride a bicycle to reach an MRT line, which usually doubles their commute time.

Furthermore, over the long term, transferring between buses and the metro on a daily basis can cost more than riding a scooter.

However, scooter riders directly inhale extremely unhealthy air while in traffic. Many studies have shown that during traffic congestion, idling scooters emit a great amount of hazardous air pollutants, including volatile organic compounds, heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

A commute of 20 to 30 minutes is enough for a scooter driver wearing a mask to breathe in considerable amounts of toxins. Over time, this will take a great toll on people’s health and its negative effects are difficult to estimate.

National Cheng Kung University law profesor Wang Yu-Cheng (王毓正) has said that from a legal standpoint and based on the Constitution, which protects people’s rights to live healthily, members of the public should be entitled to free public transportation to avoid being exposed to air pollution.

National Taiwan University professor Chan Chang-chuan (詹長權) has said that people are exposed to air pollution while waiting for buses at bus stops.

This is something that the regulatory authorities for diesel trucks and buses — the largest sources of vehicle emissions — must address. The EPA must speed up its “14 plus N” policy, in particular the parts addressing the reduction of diesel car emissions.

Coal-fired power plants should be replaced with natural gas power plants as soon as possible. Measures that address the root causes of air pollution, including power plants in central and southern Taiwan, should be implemented before their scheduled deadlines to minimize pollution.

Hopefully, one day residents of southern Taiwan will be able to leave home without having to wear face masks. If not, they will probably have to build their own bus stops with air purifiers.

Wang Min-ling is deputy executive director of the Citizen of the Earth Foundation.

Translated by Tu Yu-an