The stars at night are usually big and bright, but not during the summer in North Texas.
Ozone season runs from March through November when hot air mixes with other pollutants to create dangerous air conditions. In 2020, North Texas experienced 46 days with eight hours of high ozone levels. Just seven months into 2021, the area already has experienced a 32% increase in bad air days.
All of 2021’s high ozone days occurred in the summer months, and August promises to bring even more. Last year, 29 of the year’s high-ozone days occurred in August.
The good news is long-term trends show ozone levels falling yearly. Even as more cars get onto the road, they’re becoming increasingly efficient with fewer emissions. But experts said that path is not sustainable in the long term without a major investment in public transportation and dramatically more efficient automobiles.
Local governments often prioritize other concerns over making efforts to cut emissions, resulting in a recurring ozone problem, said Chris Klaus, senior program manager of Air Quality Planning and Operations for The North Central Texas Council of Governments.
“Funding is limited,” Klaus said. “And local governments have a zillion things that they’re all having to focus on. … That’s why we’re here, we continue to try to be an advocate and champion for air quality.”
One of those efforts is to remind individuals what they can do to improve ozone levels.
To encourage individual action, The North Central Texas Council of Governments operates Air North Texas, which marks Clean Air Action Day on Aug. 6. The purpose of the day is to encourage North Texans to “make simple changes to their daily routines that collectively can have a significant impact on the air they breathe.”
Fort Worth has never met federal standards for ozone levels in the air, but ozone levels have steadily decreased since the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1990.
“We’ve got data that suggests we’ve got some of the cleanest air that we’ve experienced since the 1990s,” Klaus said. “And it’s still not good enough.”
The North Central Texas Council of Governments works to be sure transportation projects don’t hurt air quality and push a region further out of compliance with EPA standards. The agency also develops projects that help city governments achieve their emissions goals.
When ozone gets into the lungs, it chemically reacts with the tissue and poses a public health risk. The elderly, children and people with respiratory conditions fare worse when ozone is high.
Different types of pollutants
Ozone, particulate matter is any particle small enough to get into your lungs,
Air nuisances include anything that isn’t a threat to health but impacts quality of life, including odor, biological threats and greenhouse gases
Layers of the air
The earth’s atmosphere includes the troposphere (containing bad ozone, also known as ground-level ozone), the stratosphere and above that a protective layer of ozone (good ozone)
Ozone is created by mixing oxides of nitrogen (burning fuel) and volatile organic compounds (naturally occurring) with sunlight.
To cut down ozone, cars have to burn less gas. When a power plant opens, the government is able to effectively regulate the emissions it produces.
Every car in DFW driving down a freeway is like a tiny, unregulated power plant, Klaus said. Because cars have gotten remarkably efficient, they don’t emit a lot on their own. When combined with all the other cars on the road, in 2020, transportation caused over 88 tons of emissions per day in North Texas.
When air is hot and still, ozone settles and cooks in the Metroplex. Sometimes pollution will be carried here from other places, but weather conditions make it stick and stay in North Texas.
Dallas-Fort Worth also has a culture of commuting by car. More drivers on the road mean more congestion and worsening air quality, especially as the suburbs expand.
To make sure ozone levels continue to fall, Klaus said, there are individual, collective and creative changes North Texans and their governments can make to reduce emissions.
City of Fort Worth
In 2021, the city published an environmental master plan that outlines how the city monitors air quality with the help of the Council of Governments and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Fort Worth also works with the Council of Governments on regional air quality planning, focused on limiting emissions from transportation.
The report notes that significant development in the city creates challenges for addressing air quality as land is developed.
The plan also notes future goals that could reduce emissions and help the city “minimize Fort Worth’s contribution to air pollution and carefully monitor key air contaminants to promote a safe city,” one of the stated goals of the plan.
If you go
The city of Fort Worth is having a virtual talk focused on transit-oriented development
- The talks are a part of the cities series of Community Design Fort Worth Urban Design Talks. Transit-oriented development is a style of urban planning and development that maximizes residential, business and leisure space and pedestrian activity within a half-mile walking distance of a public transit
- Where: Via Zoom. Click to get a ticket.
- When: 5:30 p.m. Aug. 4
- Cost: Pay what you can with a $20 suggested donation
The city’s compliance team works with local transportation and energy production companies to make sure they are compliant with emission standards. The city also partners with the Council of Governments on outreach programs to encourage public participation and encourages city employees to rideshare and bring lunch to reduce their emissions.
Improving infrastructure is a key part of reducing emissions. When roads are made more efficient and public transportation carries more people, it decreases emissions. The city didn’t identify projects that would decrease emissions directly, but as transportation gets more efficient emissions also drop.
Klaus points to the city’s efforts to develop bike lanes and walking trails.
“The next thing to think about is how to develop or integrate or grow your land use around different types of modes of transportation, rather than just a road.
The North Central Texas Council of Governments created a mobility plan for development up to 2045. The plan has a two-pronged approach with maintaining existing infrastructure and investing in new, efficient infrastructure.
The multi-billion-dollar plan includes expansion of bus and rail service, maintenance to existing roadways and technological improvements to things like stoplights to improve the efficiency of cars as they drive down the road.
The Council of Government’s mobility plan asks municipalities to use policies like asking city employees to drive less, idling restrictions and roadway improvements in exchange for receiving federal grant money.
Community outreach and education are a part of both Fort Worth and the Council of Government emissions reduction strategies.
“We just can’t stop having those discussions. We have to work continually to look to the future and make sure that our messaging hasn’t stopped,” Cody Whittenburg Fort Worth’s Assistant Director with the Code Compliance Department – Environmental Health Services, said.
On Clean Air Action Day, Klaus encourages people to experiment with new routines that save emissions. Air North Texas’ website provides actions to reduce emissions for the day, with the hope that North Texans might pick up a habit that reduces consumption long term.
“We try to provide at least a piece of encouragement, education and financial availability to allow that to happen,” Klaus said.
What you can do to clean the air
- Reduce the number of trips you have to make during the day
- Mow your lawn early in the morning or late in the evening
- Carpool with family, friends and co-workers to reduce the number of trips
- Bring your lunch to work to avoid mid-day trips
Taking public transportation or carpooling is the best way to reduce emissions from a commute. But if sharing transportation isn’t an option, reducing idle time and making sure vehicles are receiving regular maintenance is a good step toward reducing personal emissions.
Another way to reduce the health risks associated with ozone is by signing up for pollution alerts, which prompt people to limit outdoor activity.
When the Clean Air Act created stringent standards for automobile emissions, it forced the industry to rapidly make cars more efficient. The change dramatically increased air quality in North Texas.
The next generation of technological advancements creates exciting opportunities for emissions to further drop. North Texas has built a sprawling, expanding Metroplex based on a system of highways, Klaus said.
“We can’t build our way out of congestion,” he said. There isn’t enough money to expand our infrastructure enough to make sure everyone with a car can get from point A to point B with the maximum amount of efficiency.
Instead, the North Central Texas Council of Governments points to innovative solutions and prioritizing investments to make up for lacking funds.
The council of governments has $56.6 billion in available funds to improve transportation. The agency estimates it would need nearly $400 billion to completely eliminate congestion.
More money could be coming through federal funds from the bipartisan infrastructure plan working its way through Congress in Washington.
“It’s actually exciting. Of course, there is roadway maintenance that we have to do,” Klaus said. “But there are other… alternatives that are being planned that just take a lot of money.”
Some of those alternatives include high-speed rail, widespread use of electric cars, streets that charge electric vehicles as they drive on them, and more.
“There’s a lot of huge opportunities within the next couple of years, and there’s going to be some significant infusions that we’ll try to take advantage of here,” Klaus said. And instead of going and doing pilots in other places in the country, why can’t we do it here?”
Rachel Behrndt is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by grants from the Amon G. Carter and Sid W. Richardson foundations. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.