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Report: Hundreds of thousands of Louisville residents are exposed to roadway pollution

072322_Preston Highway_traffic_by Jacob Munoz
A planning team is considering road and sidewalk changes along the Preston corridor.

Almost half of all Louisvillians live less than a quarter mile from major roadway or interstate, potentially putting them at increased risk for heart disease, asthma and other health issues, according to a report released by the Urban Institute on Tuesday. 

Researchers at the nonpartisan think tank found that about 100,000 residents, 13% of the population, who live even closer to federal interstates are more likely to live below the federal poverty line or receive federal food assistance. They are also disproportionately renters, not homeowners. 

Those living closest to major roadways, within 325 feet, have an increased risk of heart attack and lung cancer because of the nitrogen dioxide and other fine inhalable particles cars put into the air. 

Yonah Freemark, one of the report’s authors, said their research found that residents with the fewest housing options are disproportionately impacted by roadway pollution.

“One thing that really struck me from these findings was finding out that folks without a car were more likely to be exposed to automobile-based pollution,” he said. “That essentially means people who are not contributing to air and noise pollution are actually the ones who are suffering the worst consequences. That seems unfair to me.”

Freemark and his co-author, Gabe Samels, say children are more likely to suffer the negative health impacts of living or learning near interstates and major roadways. 

They found that 60%of Jefferson County schools are within 1,000 feet of roads with at least four lanes of traffic. About a third of elementary schools are even closer, within 500 feet.

“This overwhelming exposure of Louisvillians to highways is, to some degree, unremarkable: The reliance of most Americans on car travel means they often need to be near principal roadways,” Freemark and Samuels wrote. “Yet it is also a damning indictment of local, state, and federal transportation and land-use planning.”

An ongoing issue identified by the Urban Institute researchers is the number of apartment buildings being built around these major roadways. New construction permits for multi-family housing in Louisville are more likely to be within 500 feet of an interstate compared to new single-family homes. 

Part of the problem researchers identified comes down to zoning that determines where building apartments is allowed. More than half of the land in Louisville Metro approved for high-density residential use is within 500 feet of a major roadway. Louisville’s 800-page Land Development Code, which is written and updated by city officials, dictates how land can be used.

“These results raise concerns about whether zoning policy encourages the location of more affordable, higher-density housing construction near [major roads],” the report states.

What can local governments do?

Last month, Louisville Metro Council approved a resolution calling on the state to invest more resources into property maintenance and activating spaces around interstate onramps and offramps. The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet owns all the land around federal interstates. 

The resolution came out of the conversations District 21 Metro Council Member Nicole George and Council President David James, both Democrats, had with residents living near interstates. James represents the Old Louisville area and part of the Preston Highway corridor, while George represents South End communities near I-65 and the Watterson Expressway. 

A summary of residents’ complaints George provided to WFPL News showed concerns about homelessness, gun violence and abandoned properties. One neighbor said their home shook anytime trucks or other large vehicles passed by on the interstate.

George said in an interview Tuesday that noise and air pollution are just part of the numerous negative environmental factors these neighbors face.

“Most people are not aware of the concerns around pollution because it’s not the thing you see,” she said. “They are like the low-grade things that just hum in the background always. And then you add these other layers, the litter, the graffiti, this doesn’t signal investment in a place people want to be.”

George said more investment is needed in neighborhoods near the interstate to address pollution, but also to address vacant properties, safety and the lack of amenities. 

Researchers from the Urban Institute argue in their report that Louisville Metro and the state should explore adding additional sound barriers to parts of the interstate that pass through residential areas. Freemark said something as basic as planting more trees can also help address air quality issues. 

“Trees are a really effective way to absorb pollutants, because trees are a natural system to take in air pollutants,” he said. 

Louisville Metro might also be able to take advantage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, passed by Congress last year. One pilot program called “Reconnecting Communities” will provide federal dollars for redesigning roadways or mitigating negative health impacts in neighborhoods that were historically cut off from economic opportunities by transit infrastructure.

A potentially controversial move would be for the city to change its Land Development Code to discourage building in close proximity to major roadways and allow for more forms of housing in other areas. Louisville’s Department of Planning and Design is currently in the middle of a multi-year project to reform the Code

Freemark said the city should consider making it legal to build duplexes and triplexes in areas zoned for single-family residential housing. The difficulty is that city officials and planners typically want apartments to be built in places that have easy access to transportation and jobs.

“There’s absolutely a tradeoff here between accessibility to transportation and adjacency to the negative health impacts,” he said. “A lot of the reason why people want to live and work near highways is that allows them easy access to other parts of the Metro, and not just in Louisville but across the country.”

Freemark said he doesn’t think requiring housing and schools to be set back more than 1,000 or 500 feet from major roads, coupled with more green landscaping, would significantly change accessibility.

The Urban Institute report assumes that roadway pollution distributes evenly over a certain area, but researchers acknowledge that environmental differences like roadway design and local weather and wind patterns influence exposure. Researchers also did not take into account the noise and air pollution caused by the location of Muhammad Ali International Airport near Louisville’s urban core.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.