A pandemic induced shutdown is a harsh way to achieve cleaner air, but it has done just that. Air quality in DC is some 10 to 20% better than at this time last year, according to Tommy Wells, Director of the District Office of Energy and the Environment (DOEE). Indeed, the region “has yet to experience a day with unhealthful air quality in 2020.”
This is in part due to fewer cars on the road and more people walking and taking other modes of transit to get around — if they got around at all.
As the District reopens, however, what can be done to continue to keep pollution down?
A world of change in air quality
We are in a period of cleaner air around the planet. Greenhouse-gas emissions decreased 17% in April of 2020 compared to the prior year. Delhi, India, for instance, saw a drop of over 70% in harmful PM 2.5 particles and nitrogen dioxide, while in China cleaner air “likely saved between 53,000 and 77,000 lives,” although pollution has soared as restrictions have lifted, according to National Geographic.
DC already had an ambitious program to increase alternatives to cars, and measures responding to the coronavirus have accelerated this.
Our shared new reality “creates an opportunity to further reimagine our space, so that we can reward modes that have smaller environmental footprints,” said Payton Chung, chair of the Sierra Club DC Chapter’s Smart Growth Committee.
As we exit quarantine, whether quickly or slowly, can the DC region maintain some of the clean air benefits we’ve experienced?
The impacts of air pollution
Air pollution likely worsens fatalities from the coronavirus, according to a Harvard study, and certainly worsens other respiratory illnesses. And the increase in hot days due to climate change exacerbates air pollution in cities, an American Lung Association report explains, leading to more “high days of ozone and short-term particle pollution” over the past five years.
Washington, DC had already received a grade of F for ozone pollution, “also known as smog,” from the American Lung Association in a 2019 report. Local air pollution increases risk from asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
This year, however, the District is experiencing clean, healthy air, with a 20% reduction in nitrogen oxide levels — which exacerbates asthma — even after accounting for weather, said Kelly Crawford, Associate Director, Air Quality Division, DC DOEE. She added that we are in the midst of “one of our longest” periods of good air quality days “ever without any ozone exceedances.”
There are some caveats. Heavy-truck traffic has remained at high levels. And teasing out how much of the improved air quality is due to decreased traffic, how much to our unusually cool, windy spring, and how much to other pollution sources, is difficult. Indeed, the DC, Maryland, and Virginia departments of the environment are collaborating on “experiments and observations and measurements, so that we can take a deeper dive” into which factors are most responsible for the region’s cleaner air, said Crawford.
And, of course, traffic is only one piece of the puzzle. Notably, “74% of our greenhouse gases are caused by energy use of buildings,” said Wells.
Still, reducing traffic is clearly an important part of our improved air quality this year. DC had already been working on reducing solo car trips and the shut-down provided opportunities to accelerate this.
DC takes some aggressive actions to increase transit alternatives — but is it enough?
The District has taken several steps to improve walking, biking, and transit, all of which reduce car traffic and lead to cleaner air.
“The District of Columbia has very far-reaching transportation plans,” Chung pointed out, as outlined in the Move DC plan. For Chung, though, the “level of detail” has been inadequate, leaving the District underprepared for the coronavirus.
“By 2020 there should have been many more miles of bike lanes on DC streets. We’ve been pleading for bus lanes on key corridors like 16th Street Northwest for many years.” Once the pandemic hit, it was “difficult to do the community outreach that is needed before making drastic changes to public spaces.”
While grand long-term plans with slow implementation is a pattern common to many jurisdictions, Chung pointed to Oakland, California as one city that was prepared to act swiftly and effectively. As early as April, Oakland restricted vehicle access on some 10% of its streets. And Europe has done much better than the United States; for instance, Paris has “convert[ed] more than 30 miles of major arterials … into a network of bicycle-highways.”
Still, the District has taken many noteworthy actions, both prior to the pandemic and in response, that improve public transit and make walking and biking easier. On June 1, the city reduced the speed limit from 25 mph to 20 mph, a change intended to be permanent. And it has instituted a network of “slow streets” that limit cars to local traffic with a top speed of 15 mph.
One co-benefit of slower traffic is that it will help reduce pedestrian and bicycle injuries and deaths, a step toward DC’s Vision Zero pledge to eliminate deaths from traffic by 2024. A small difference in speed limit makes a huge difference in fatalities; when hit by a vehicle traveling at 20 mph, nine out of 10 pedestrians survive, but at 30 mph only five out of 10 survive.
Situated at seven locations in different corners of the city, the slow streets provide opportunities for walking, biking, and generally enjoying the excellent weather, while staying the recommended six feet from others. While far from a connected network, the current “slow streets” are only the first phase, with future expansion to be announced. The long-term ideal would be “to create a network of slow streets connecting all of our neighborhoods through all eight wards of our city, absolutely,” said Cheryl Cort, Policy Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
Additionally, DC is expanding sidewalks “near grocery stores and other essential retailers” as well as adding outdoor space for dining. These amenities, which will make outdoor life far more pleasant for strolling, dining, and generally contemplating life, are meant to be only temporary. And the city has closed roads to cars in Rock Creek Park, Fort Dupont and Anacostia Park, creating other islands of walkability and bikeability.
The city has also taken advantage of the pandemic to accelerate programs to improve bus service. Plans for dedicated bus lanes on key routes that would move more people more quickly, had long been on hold but have finally been coming to fruition in the last year or two. The District has already created dedicated bus lanes on H and I Streets and 16th Street, and is accelerating plans on 14th Street and K Street.
In a fresh piece of good news for transit advocates, the DC government has announced that it will “assign lanes and prioritize signals for the Lifeline Network bus corridors,” 27 key routes considered essential to the region. Cort expressed excitement that “the city is moving quickly on dedicated bus lanes and signal priority.”
The city is also finishing key protected bike lanes on Irving Street and elsewhere. Cort praised these efforts but hopes the city can do even more, arguing that “this is the time for overdrive in making bicycle commuting safe and accessible.” Indeed, she argued that we need protected bicycle lanes across all eight wards.
A question of access — and justice — for all
Cort pointed to a hospital worker who rides his bicycle on the sidewalk all the way from Congress Heights to the Howard University Hospital. “A worker like that should have a nice, safe connected bike route on slow streets, that’s on dedicated bike lanes and protected trails,” she exclaimed.
Lack of bicycle routes is only one part of deeply entrenched patterns in low-income and black and brown communities. Impacts from traffic accidents and poor air quality are particularly harsh for these groups.
One area where the District has done well is in spreading the new walking and biking routes created in response to the Coronavirus throughout DC, providing access to various communities. However, disparities remain.
Changing street dynamics around grocery stores are happening “generally in better-resourced neighborhoods,” said Chung. Cort pointed out that there “aren’t a lot of grocery stores East of the River,” one of many long-term equity problems.
Heavy trucks are also a problem, since “we tend to see facilities that house diesel fleets being located in lower-income and black and brown neighborhoods,” said Lara Levison, chair of the Sierra Club DC Chapter’s Clean Energy Committee. She added that, “more hotter days, more ground level ozone and the health impacts are greater on folks who work outdoors, and folks who are in poor health who more often are low-income people and people of color.”
Long-term inequities entrenched in neighborhood infrastructure require extra effort. Chung recommended more public outreach to find ways to address “unsafe conditions in areas that have historically had fewer resources.” New efforts can be linked to the current protests, which encompass not just police violence but inequities in multiple arenas.
What of the future?
With synchronicity between DC’s long-term transportation plans and Covid-19 measures for more open streets, many of the current changes could become permanent, altering the way the city gets around. And greater teleworking is also likely to reduce congestion, particularly during the morning and evening rush periods.
Still, the situation for public transit is problematic, as bus and rail systems face financial problems from drastically reduced ridership and long-term fear of returning to crowded buses and trains.
Yet concerns about public transit spreading disease are hugely overblown. According to a recent Atlantic article, new studies of Paris and Austria showed zero Covid-19 infection clusters could be traced to transit systems. In Hong Kong and in Japanese cities, places enormously dependent on public transit, COVID-19 numbers have been relatively tiny.
One measure that could boost transit is already before the DC Council; a bill introduced by Councilmember Charles Allen (Ward 6) that would subsidize public transit $100 per month, per resident. “If that goes fully into place at the same time that people are going back to work, then we’ll see if that will be a major shift,” said Wells.
Transit has recently received a boost from the ongoing protests, with a 150% ridership increase on a single Saturday. Already, the partial opening of the region has pushed an expansion of Metrobus service. Yet transit remains fraught with uncertainty.
Chung had a couple of suggestions. As traditional rush hours lessen, “the transit system will have to adapt to lower levels of ridership spaced out over a longer time period.” He suggests studying methods such as increased ventilation to decrease the risk of contracting the virus.
Overall, then, better pedestrian and bike routes, slower traffic, and more telecommuting have all accelerated during these difficult times, and that has helped to reduce pollution and improve air quality.