How much is air quality improving with fewer cars on the road?


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Data shows traffic in central Texas has significantly improved since Stay at Home orders were put in place, but it’s harder to find data showing that air quality could be improving because of the reduction in traffic.

TxDOT compared traffic on its roadways during the first few weeks after Stay at Home orders went into effect to an average week in February.

They found that during March 21-27, there was a 42% reduction in traffic. During both the weeks of March 28-April 3 and April 4-10, there was a 49% reduction.

On toll roads run by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, March saw a 10% drop in traffic overall. On the Mopac Express Lane, CTRMA recorded a 46% drop on the MoPac Express Lane.

County leaders say air quality has also improved due to so many people telecommuting.

“Not only is it saving lives, but we’re also seeing huge dividends to our traffic and our air quality,” Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said in a press conference last week.

But the entities that measure air quality aren’t releasing air quality data to prove that yet.

The Capital Area Council of Governments, or CAPCOG, measures air quality and says more than half of Central Texas air pollution comes from cars.

CAPCOG said air quality information for recent weeks may be available soon, but it wasn’t as of Tuesday. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality couldn’t provide any as of Tuesday, either.

The TCEQ is analyzing the effects of Stay at Home orders in metropolitan areas like Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and El Paso, but it’s leaving the Austin metro out because its air quality meets federal standards.

The American Lung Association of Texas, however, says while Austin’s ozone pollution levels have improved, its air particle pollution has gotten worse. The association says because of the city’s air particle pollution, it recently dropped off of its list of cleanest cities.

“We are definitely seeing cleaner air during the COVID pandemic, but I think it’s important to remember this is just a temporary pause in air pollution,” said the American Lung Association of Texas Advocacy Director Charlie Gagen. “We need to keep in mind that at some point again, there will be a big spike in pollution.”

Gagen says both policy change and changes on a personal level will be needed to impact air quality long-term. He stresses that some of the habits made during Stay at Home orders should continue even after the mandates are lifted.

“If folks are finding clever ways to get around during these unusual times, perhaps that’s carpooling, driving less, biking down to your local convenience store, we would encourage people to keep doing that,” Gagen said.

Travis County leaders expect data to eventually show how much Stay at Home orders improved air quality during the outbreak. The county says as a result, it hopes to work toward moving 20% of its staff to more permanent telecommuting positions.

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