Vehicle emissions dramatically drop in March, but what happens when driving returns?

Inrix, the location-data company, reports that the volume of traffic in the US is down 30% in March. Late last week, it fell by 50% in San Francisco, the first region to shelter in place. Across California, and in New York and Michigan, traffic had the largest statewide drops at about 37%. As a result, vehicle emissions also fell. Sadly, this is likely to provide only short-term relief in auto-related emissions.

One of the biggest drops in pollution levels was in Wuhan, China, which was put under a strict lockdown in late January. The city of 11 million people serves as a major transportation hub. According to NASA, nitrogen dioxide levels across eastern and central China have been 10% to 30% lower than normal.

In Italy, the first nation to lock down, traffic dropped 65%.

In the US, long-haul truck traffic is flat because the national supply chain for goods needs to keep moving. And local commercial traffic is only down by 10%.

Inrix data comes from anonymous speed and location reporting ­— from about 100 million trips per day in the US. Inrix’s trip data serves as a proxy for overall road usage trends at national, state, and local levels.

Trevor Reed, a transportation analyst at INRIX, said:

There’s basically no rush hour anymore, or at least not what we would recognize as a rush hour.

With the drop in traffic, vehicle emissions have fallen. Satellites, which can detect emissions in the atmosphere linked to cars and trucks, show enormous declines in pollution over major metropolitan areas, including Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, Chicago, and Atlanta. Those are the cities with the most significant restriction on travel due to coronavirus.Researchers at Columbia University have seen emissions of carbon monoxide over New York City decline more than 50% below normal levels over the past week.

Readings from the European Space Agency’s satellites show that over the past six weeks, levels of nitrogen dioxide over cities and industrial areas in Asia and Europe were much lower than in the same period last year.

Nitrogen dioxide, which exacerbates respiratory illnesses, is produced from car engines, power plants, and other industrial processes. NOx originates from the same activities responsible for the world’s carbon emissions, including cars.

Paul Monks, professor of air pollution at the University of Leicester, told the Guardian:

We are now, inadvertently, conducting the largest-scale experiment ever seen. Are we looking at what we might see in the future if we can move to a low-carbon economy? Not to denigrate the loss of life, but this might give us some hope from something terrible. To see what can be achieved.

What I think will come out of this is a realization — because we are forced to — that there is considerable potential to change working practices and lifestyles. This challenges us in the future to think, do we really need to drive our car there or burn fuel for that.

Electrek’s Take

It’s extraordinary to see clearer skies over major US  and global cities. But scientists warn that any declines in air pollution will have minor, short-term benefits.

The coronavirus — and the decline in traffic and pollution — will not last forever. And when the coronavirus ends (thank goodness), people will get back into their cars and start driving again. Perhaps some employers will recognize the benefits of remote work-at-home employees, but that’s not likely to be the norm.

So the big question is how fast the driving public can adopt low- and zero-emission vehicles. That question gets trickier in a time when consumers aren’t buying cars, especially vehicles perceived to be more expensive. At the same time, gas prices are low.

Despite the opportunity granted by this respite in vehicle emissions, the US government so far appears unready to support cleaner transportation with enhanced EV incentives. Will the world’s highways quickly return to bumper-to-bumper traffic mostly from internal-combustion vehicles? Leave your comments below.


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Avatar for Bradley Berman Bradley Berman

Bradley writes about electric cars, autonomous vehicles, smart homes, and other tech that’s transforming society. He contributes to The New York Times, SAE International, Via magazine, Popular Mechanics, MIT Technology Review, and others.