May 28, 2020

The Rise and Fall of Air Pollution as we Navigate COVID-19

Post by: Maria Kolar, Marketing Manager

It is no secret that driving expels a variety of pollutants into the air from Carbon Dioxide to Methane Gas. In fact, transportation in general, including cars, trucks, commercial aircrafts, and railroads, is the leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions in the US. While emissions have gone down over the past few years thanks to tighter regulations, vehicle miles travelled continues to rise and impact the environment drastically. 

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One of the few silver linings brought about by the COVID-19 crisis has been a major reduction in driving activity. This was no more apparent than when NASA shared images of atmospheric gas levels above China, before and after their lockdown started. The major reduction of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) was due to a lack of movement during the Lunar New Year, which usually marks the largest human migration event. Months later, the United States also measured a drop in air-polluting emissions; in San Francisco alone, Nitrogen Dioxide dropped 20% in the month of March.

With states emerging from quarantine, what impact will this have on vehicle emissions and air pollution? If we examine recent trends, the outlook is bleak. Ridership of more economical means of transportation has drastically decreased – public transit and ride sharing, once the go-to choice for many, especially those without personal vehicles, are now being questioned in terms of safety. “In New York City, where some 5.5 million people commuted daily on subways and buses before the pandemic, residents are mulling their future transportation needs,” notes Reuters Journalist, Tina Bellon.

This has led to a substantial increase in private vehicle purchases, especially among first-time buyers. Between April 20 and 25, passenger car sales in China jumped by 12%. Daniel Davenport of Capgemini’s North America auto sector says, “We’re going to see individual vehicle usage rise as people more concerned with hygiene choose personal transportation. There’s also more interest in car ownership from customers under 35 years old.”

These factors combined pose a major threat to our air quality. More cars will lead to greater congestion, which in turn means more emissions as these vehicles sit in traffic longer than before. According to City Lab, “If just one in four transit and carpool commuters start to drive alone, San Francisco could witness a 20-minute increase in daily vehicle travel times.”

Courtesy of BBC News

Noting the likely rise in driving as a result of decreased public transit ridership, London Mayor, Sadiq Khan says, “… we can’t see journeys formerly taken on public transport replaced with car usage because our roads would immediately become unusably blocked and toxic air pollution would soar.” As a result, Khan announced London’s plans to transform parts of central London into almost 54,000 sq. ft. of space for pedestrians. The new space will become one of the largest car-free zones in any capital city in the world, encouraging safe walking and cycling.

Instead of waiting around for our roads to clog up, representatives around the world should take note from London; make a stand to push for greener initiatives and pedestrian/biker-friendly solutions. London’s initiative will not tip the scales unless others follow suit. 

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