Utahns hate bad air, but poll finds few adopt changes that would make it better

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Traffic and pedestrians on State Street at 300 S. Monday Dec. 11. Winters first temperature inversion with it associated polluted air has arrived in Northern Utah.

All Utahns want cleaner air, so surely all Utahns do their part to bring it about. They join car pools, work at home, ride the bus or train. Right?


Turns out, barely a third have changed their commuting habits to help the state beat the smog.

In the past year, according to a new Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll, 33 percent of Utah voters have worked at home due to poor air quality, 26 percent have hopped on public transit, and 34 percent have carpooled.

About a quarter (28 percent) have made a major purchase — buying more efficient windows or an electric car or lawn mower — to help scrub the sky.

Poll respondent Michael Ashton, who lives in Elk Ridge, is not among those who have embraced these measures other than working at home, something he does regardless of air quality.

For starters Utah Transit Authority bus routes don’t serve his community on the Wasatch bench above Payson, and carpooling doesn’t make sense for his work day.

“My employment is such that I work at home except when I see customers,” said Ashton, an account manager for a large company.

Still, Thom Carter, executive director of the Utah Clean Air Partnership, or UCAIR, is convinced the ranks of people taking steps to reduce emissions would go up with some extra motivation — incentives to replace dirty appliances, perhaps, or assistance in arranging car pools.

“They are saying to us, ‘When the air gets bad, I’m going to do more things,'" Carter said. “We have to give them the tools and they will do it.”

Without those inducements, said Jessica Reimer, a policy associate for HEAL Utah, habits just don’t change — at least not to the degree necessary.

“We need more policies that incentivize that behavior,” she said. “People aren’t doing it on their own.”

Even without additional sweeteners, some Utahns are more likely than others to shift their lifestyles.

More than a third (36 percent) of Democrats and unaffiliated voters said they have taken public transportation in the past year when the air turned bad, the poll showed, compared to 17 percent of Republicans.

Democrats and unaffiliated voters also are more likely to have carpooled or worked from home.

Shunting aside party labels, self-identified liberals were far more likely to embrace public transit than conservatives. Nearly half (44 percent) of “very liberal” respondents reported taking a bus or train in the past year because of mucky air compared with 14 percent of “very conservative” voters.

The Tribune-Hinckley poll of 604 registered voters was conducted Jan. 15 to 24, the heart of northern Utah’s inversion season. The overall survey’s margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The results lined up with recent UCAIR polling, which queried 258 Wasatch Front residents in September, a time of year when the air tends to be clearer.

“People who are willing to take extra measures for air quality, that’s about a quarter,” Carter said. “Half are looking for simple solutions that are convenient or cost effective.”

About three-quarters of Utahns have said they would carpool more if they could connect with other riders, Carter said. So UCAIR developed an app. Users input their home and work addresses along with the time they leave for — and return from — their jobs. It then provides other people with similar routes and timelines.

Voila. Connections.

During his annual State of the State address Wednesday, Gov. Gary Herbert pledged that state government, among Utah’s largest employers, will adopt workplace policies to better enable employees to make air-friendly choices.

“Let us lead by example,” he said. “Because tailpipe emissions are such a big part of the problem, let’s reduce the miles driven by state employees by increasing state employee use of transit and accountable [telecommuting]."

The governor intends to seek $100 million in appropriations to subsidize replacement of older, dirtier equipment with cleaner options, and other measures to boost air quality. His speech highlighted the wood-burning stoves and 25,000 pieces of gasoline-powered yard equipment, such as lawn mowers and snowblowers, that could be replaced by electric models.

On average, for example, a Utah snowblower is used for eight hours each winter. In that short period, a gasoline-powered unit emits as much pollution as a drive from Los Angeles to Miami, according to Carter.

“Think about when you use your snowblower. The air has just been cleaned out, but the lid is coming back down,” he said. In other words, every molecule a snowblower spits out adds to the soup forming under the next inversion.

But Ashton said electric snowblowers don’t cut it in neighborhoods like his that get more snow than those in the valley.

“The ones I’ve seen are pretty small,” he said. “The snow gets so deep and they are too small to move the snow. The cord is also a problem.”

He said he would consider buying an electric vehicle like a Tesla, but mainly because they are fun to drive, not because they reduce emissions.

Not that many people burn wood to heat their homes; only 70 homes are registered on the state’s tally of those in which wood is the sole source. Yet wood smoke comprises up to 15 percent of the particulate pollution on inverted days, according to University of Utah research.

It’s largely avoidable, too, because most wood burning takes place merely to create a cozy atmosphere, typically on weekends and holidays. Carter estimated it would cost $438 million to replace every wood-burning appliance in Utah’s seven-county nonattainment area for small particulate pollution.

Herbert’s speech also proposed installing 300 charging stations for electric vehicles and providing incentives for another 800. That would be a fivefold jump over what is available today.

Taken together, these steps would slash emissions by 14,000 tons a year, the equivalent of removing 65,000 cars from the road, according to the Division of Air Quality.

In UCAIR’s polling, 32 percent of respondents said they ride transit more frequently during periods of poor air quality, while about half carpool more frequently, and a quarter work at home during such periods. Nearly four in five said they don’t work at home because that option is unavailable to them.

When it comes to catching buses and TRAX, the obstacle largely boiled down to convenience. Times and locations of stops, Carter said, simply don’t line up with most people’s needs.

“We need to put people in positions to succeed," he said.