Fixing Asthma Alley


TO: New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio

FROM: Patrick Spauster, Concerned Undergraduate Researcher, Davidson College

TOPIC: Managing Air Pollution in the South Bronx

DATE: March 20th, 2016


The South Bronx is an integral part of one of the world’s greatest cities. But Bronx residents often feel like they live in a forgotten other world from the rest of the city. “We’re five miles from Wall Street… the Tale of Two Cities doesn’t exist anywhere like the South Bronxi.” Environmental activist Michael Johnson is fed up with air pollution in the Sough Bronx. The South Bronx, and in particular, Mott Haven-Port Morris is the poorest district in the country.ii The area has some of the highest urban pollutant levels in the country due to the presence of industry and heavy automobile traffic on roadways. It has been nicknamed Asthma Alley because of the negative health consequences of this pollution. The evidence is clear. Fixing asthma alley is a problem that requires unilateral action on the part of New York City government, including building greenways, buffer zones, changing transportation policy, and increasing monitoring.


Over one third of the residents of the South Bronx are below the poverty line.iii The area is home to five major roadways and several big industries that contribute to air pollution problems. Harlem River Drive, the Major Deegan, the Bruckner, the Cross Bronx, and the Sheridan are some of the most crowded and frequently traveled roadways in the Northeast, for both cars and trucks.iv The area is a gateway for automobiles to Manhattan, but the high levels of traffic have big effects on poor Bronx residents who don’t possess the political and economic capital to fight for themselves. A 2009 New York University Study found higher than expected concentrations of several air pollutants in the South Bronx area, including nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide.v The same study also found some alarming results when it came to asthma, a condition that is caused and worsened by highly polluted air. Bronx county has the highest rate of asthma in the US (about three times higher than the average).

Hospitalization rates are five times higher than the national average and in some Bronx neighborhoods close to 20% of children have asthmavi. Furthermore, many Bronx public schools are located in particularly high pollutant areas, compounding the effects of pollution on youth. A 2007 study found similar results, with statistically significant results showing higher levels of pollutants and childhood asthma on average.viiSince that time, the situation is not much improved. Bronx pollution puts economically vulnerable families, livelihoods, and children at risk everyday.


I will use the following criteria to evaluate several policy options to address this problem.

  1. Political Feasibility – This is a measure of how much political effort will be required to implement policy
  2. Environmental Cost/Benefits – This metric indicates how effective each policy will be at solving the environmental problem of air pollution
  3. Social Costs/Benefits – The effects of the policy on the community
  4. Administrative Feasibility – how easy will this policy be to implement and enforce? Do we have systems to implement policy or do we need to create them?
  5. Economic Costs and Benefits – how much will this effort cost the taxpayer, and how much will it benefit those who are affected by environmental damage economically?


  1. Increased Monitoring
  • Understanding the issue of air pollution in the South Bronx is essential to creating positive solutions. For example, current pollutant monitors are located on top of schools, some 15 feet in the air while pollutants on the ground level were actually found to be twice as high.viii
  • Increased monitoring instruments and study to create a map of pollution will help policymakers identify areas of particular interest.
  • The advantage of this policy is that it will be at relatively low cost to administer and implement, but it monitors the problem, not solves it.
  1. Transportation Policy Change
  • Trucks are responsible for a great deal of the pollution on the South Bronx roadways – support alternative transportation initiatives like buses, and rails.
  • The Bronx is a bottleneck for truck garbage and waste transport out of the city.ix Create other waste transport routes by water or rail can help alleviate this problem
  • Increase enforcement of standing time limits for trucks and cars.
  • Transportation policy change has the advantage of cleaning up some of the roadways but has high economic and political costs in terms of building and funding alternative transportation.
  1. Zoning Changes
  • Relocate waste transfer sites away from residential areas.
  • Remove sources of traffic through public transportation.
  • These policies are plausible but may be difficult to garner support for because of the inconvenience it places on businesses and waste disposers. Creating new sources of transportation is also costly.
  1. Creation of buffers and greenways
  • Pollution is worst at the closest distances to roads.x
  • Creating parks and other green buffer zones, particularly around schools near roadways, can reduce negative health effects and beautify congested areas, particularly those nearest to schools.
  • Trees and wildlife reduce pollutant levels.xi
  • This policy has significant social environmental and economic benefits for the Bronx community. Concerns are the administrative and political feasibility of building parks and greenways in the area.


The policy option I would recommend is the creation of buffers and greenways near highways, and particularly near at risk public schools. The advantages of this policy are multifaceted. They will help reduce pollution in the area, and can be targeted at the most vulnerable areas where negative health consequences are the worst and where they affect children. Furthermore, they create a space for the community to enjoy and value. It still presents a financial obstacle, but it is less than the alternatives of creating new transportation systems. That being said, I think that some other small policy changes in accordance with this initiative could have excellent effects. Common sense legislation to increase monitoring and limiting standing times and waste disposal traffic should be partnered with this initiative, because creating pollution buffers cannot fully solve the problem on its own.





Political Feasability Environmental Benefit/Cost Social Benefit/Cost Administrative Feasability Economic Benefit/Cost Weighted Score
Increased Monitoring 3 2 1 3 2 2
Transportation Policy Change 1 3 2 1 1 1.75
Zoning Changes 2 3 3 2 1 2.25
Creation of Buffers and Greenways 2 3 3 3 2 2.625
Weight .125 .25 .25 .125 .25


Works Cited

Maantay, Juliana. 2007. Asthma and air pollution in the Bronx. Health & Place 13 (2007): 32–56.


Restrepo, Carlos and Zimmerman, Rae. 2009. South Bronx Environmental Health and Policy

Study. Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, New York University.


Yerman, Marcia. 2015. The South Bronx Fights Pollution in “Asthma Alley” Daily KOS.



i.Yerman 2015

ii. Yerman 2015

iii. Yerman 2015

iv. Restrepo and Zimmerman 2009

v. Restrepo and Zimmerman 2009

vi. Restrepo and Zimmerman 2009

vii. Maantay 2007

viii. Restrepo and Zimmerman 2009

ix. Restrepo and Zimmerman 2009

x. Restrepo and Zimmerman 2009

xi. Restrepo and Zimmerman 2009

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