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Decline in Rush-Hour Traffic a Boon for Health

In deciding whether to return to the office, one thing to consider is that fewer cars on the road means less air pollution.

This article was originally published in the Montreal Gazette

Soon everyone, or almost everyone, will be vaccinated and many people who have been working from home will have to figure out when they will be returning to the office. The decision is a complicated one.

Many people enjoy working from home when possible and were probably surprised to realize that it can be quite feasible. Of course, it was not everyone’s cup of tea.

In any case, working from home clearly helped diminish viral spread during the pandemic. It also had one other ancillary benefit. It limited air pollution.

The scope of the lockdown is sometimes hard to fathom. By the spring of 2020, most of the world’s population was living in countries with some sort of stay-at-home order or lockdown in place. Industrial production dropped, air travel pretty much disappeared and car use fell off substantially. The net result of this decreased travel for either work or vacation was that there was a reduction in fossil fuel use in 2020 and 2021, and the environment was the better for it.

It is easier and less costly to move electrons along a network than it is to move people around a city. The daily crush of rush hour traffic is expensive and time-consuming. Rush hour traffic not only requires massive investments in infrastructure like roads and bridges, but it also produces a lot of pollution. Electric vehicles may one day limit those car exhausts but we still have to produce the electricity that powers those vehicles, and that may not always be done in the most environmentally friendly way possible. Public transportation can help reduce the press of cars on the road, but that, too, requires a large investment in public funds and the simpler course of action may be to simply stop making people move about so much on a daily basis. This could suit companies too: they would probably save money if they didn’t have to maintain downtown offices or could maintain smaller ones, and it would allow them to hire people from farther afield without forcing them to relocate.

Various environmental analyses have shown improvements in air quality when the various lockdowns went into effect, which translates into real health benefits. The impact of air pollution on both lung and heart disease is well established, and one analysis estimated that the decrease in air pollution seen during the pandemic prevented roughly 95,000 premature deaths worldwide. Interestingly, most of the benefit was seen in China, which saw a comparatively greater decline in air pollution than North American or Western Europe.

There are a few caveats to all of the analyses on this subject. Prevented deaths must by necessity be estimates, as we can never know what would have happened in a non-COVID world. Also, environmental studies must deal with complicating issues like seasonal variation in pollution levels and the fact that air pollution levels can vary within a country. Also, not all forms of air pollution seem to be equally responsive to a decrease in human activity. While levels of nitrogen dioxide decreased in the atmosphere during the pandemic, other forms of air pollution like ozone and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) were more variable and seemed to depend more on local sources of air pollution and energy production.

Suffice it to say that air pollution is a complicated, nuanced problem that will require wide-ranging, long-term solutions that may be different from country to country. But having fewer people in rush hour traffic will almost certainly help to some degree. Not everyone has the luxury of working from home or living close to their work. But for those who do, the benefits in terms of time and money saved from not commuting are not negligible. And if that were not enough, fewer cars on the road means less air pollution, cleaner air and a healthier population. And that is a benefit to everyone.


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