Smokescreens mask Front Range air quality problem — and solutions

Employers have a role in combating Denver-area air pollution

September 24, 2021 4:30 am

An aerial view of air pollution in the Denver area. (Courtesy of EcoFlight)

Western wildfires billowed out another discouraging summer of visibly poor air for Denver and the Front Range. While the pollutants in this smoke are unhealthy on their own, they quite literally provided a smokescreen to our most enduring local air quality issue: harmful levels of ground-level ozone.

We typically consider June through mid-September the height of the area’s ozone season. This year’s season was the worst in recent memory: 41 straight days with ozone alerts contributed to 73 total alerts through mid-September.

Smoke and pollutants from other places can and do contribute to our ozone problem, but we are far from powerless to clean up our air. More than 40% of our homegrown, ozone-causing emissions come from our vehicles — and that’s after decades of emissions improvements by automakers.


For the region to rapidly achieve and continuously meet health standards for summertime ozone, and continually reduce greenhouse gases that degrade our climate, additional measures for reducing emissions will be necessary. Our health, our natural environment, our wallets, and our general well-being depend on these achievements.

As Denver was making headlines for some of the worst air quality on the planet this summer, concerns about businesses and our local economy unraveled efforts to reduce metro area traffic gridlock and the emissions it causes. Dubbed an Employee Traffic Reduction Program, these plans would have required the area’s largest employers to offer workers ways to skip a few drive-alone car trips each week. The goal was incentivizing action, not demanding sacrifices from commuters.

This regulatory approach was dubbed too much, too soon, and too high a cost for businesses still finding their footing in the pandemic recovery. Instead, an intensive voluntary approach, in which employers can choose to pursue commuter trip reduction efforts, will be promoted. It is fair to be skeptical of this outcome. Without good-faith efforts by both public and private employers to participate in these voluntary programs, there will be little difference between this course and the status quo of the past 30 years.

While we know there is support for commuter trip reduction in communities throughout our area, we will continue to fall short of meaningful air quality improvements without actual commitments. This is where employers have an opportunity to lead.

We will continue to fall short of meaningful air quality improvements without actual commitments. This is where employers have an opportunity to lead.

Meaningful efforts could be as straightforward as work at home options or businesses offering employees a choice to take the cash equivalent of what it costs to provide them with a parking space. These parking payouts take dollars a business would continue to spend anyway and simply puts them in an employee’s pocket to use at their own discretion. Maybe that’s transit passes, an e-bike, or upgrades to home offices. Transportation management and metropolitan planning organizations are well-equipped to assist businesses with exactly these types of efforts. If managing any sort of program isn’t logistically possible, businesses can also turn to traditional corporate citizenship.

Local governments, nonprofits and regional organizations maintain a variety of air quality programs. As an example, a business could support a program that replaces gas-powered lawn mowers, another big contributor to poor air quality, with new electric models. For $5,000, 30 emissions-belching mowers that cause ozone could be exchanged, achieving the equivalent emissions reduction of 100 people not driving alone to work twice a week for many years to come.

Clogged commutes and unhealthy air do not help our communities, businesses or our economy. Our air quality problems will only remain, and likely intensify, if we simply keep doing what we have done in the past and continue to do now. Despite the recent defeat of a regulatory approach, maintaining an ineffective status quo makes it likely that regulations will be necessary in the near future. The extent of those regulations, and the level of inconvenience or disruptions they cause, will depend solely on whether we choose to take ownership in collectively investing the time and resources necessary for solutions.

There’s no wrong way to start participating, and a variety of organizations are ready and willing to assist. If we cannot commit to aggressively pursue voluntary efforts to clean our air, then what can we pursue? If we cannot commit to making them a priority now, then when will we ever?


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Mike Silverstein
Mike Silverstein

Mike Silverstein is the executive director of the Regional Air Quality Council, the lead air quality planning agency for the Denver Metro/North Front Range Ozone Non-Attainment Area.