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Shifting Commute Patterns Bring Cleaner Air

Experts and employers weigh in on the impact of commuting on Atlanta’s air quality

08/05/2021

Arts Center MARTA Station underwent enhancements in 2020. Transit trips emit substantially less air pollution compared to car trips.

BY CHRISTI NAKAJIMA 

If your commute during the pandemic included less driving, you helped Atlantans breathe a little easier. Significant drops in traffic led to drastic improvements in Atlanta’s air quality, which allowed researchers to examine how traveling to work affects the air we all breathe. Read more to find out about what that could mean for the future of commuting.  

Decreases in traffic bring fresher air 

Atlanta saw major declines in travel around April 2020, with mobility reduced to less than 40% of the median travel distance prior to the outbreak of COVID-19. Driving is no small contribution to poor air quality with gas-powered vehicles emitting pollutants such as particulate matter and emissions that react to create ground-level ozone, the primary ingredient in smog. In metro Atlanta, about half of these smog-forming emissions come from vehicle tailpipes. However, with the majority of offices switching to remote work during the pandemic, driving to work and being stuck in traffic became significantly less commonplace. As a result, for the first time in 30 years, the Atlanta region met the EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standard for ground-level ozone. We spoke with Abby Marinelli, Senior Data Analyst with the Atlanta Regional Commission, to dive deeper into this shift. 

"What we found was that even though people were driving about the same number of miles, air quality improved because peak congestion was significantly reduced,” said Marinelli. “Taking away rush hour traffic had a much larger impact than we expected. The biggest thing we can do for air quality is avoid returning to the same old commute behavior." 

How exactly do these pollutants affect us?  

Ozone can make the lungs more susceptible to infection and increase the frequency of asthma attacks, while exposure to particulate matter can lead to arrhythmias and increased hospital visits. As a result, air pollutants like these contribute to at least 5 million premature deaths every year. Research has also shown that increased exposure to particulate matter leads to higher COVID-19 death rates.  

Midtown employers strive for better air 

Without careful planning, Atlanta’s air pollution could go back to pre-pandemic levels, as more commuters are beginning to return to Midtown with businesses reopening.  Fortunately, some employers are leading the way in preserving these improvements. 

“Our goal is to become a carbon negative company by 2040,” said Greg Minano, Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer at Interface. “One of the reasons we chose our Midtown location is its proximity to the Arts Center MARTA station, which makes it easy for employees to commute by train. We also support employees who bike to the office by providing storage and showers. The accessibility of these commute options encourages employees and visitors to choose transportation methods that reduce their own carbon footprints and to engage on a personal level with our Climate Take Back™ mission, which aims to reverse global warming." 

Transit is a cleaner (i.e. less polluting) commute option than driving because it carries multiple people with one bus or train, rather than having each person drive their own gas-burning vehicle. Transit trips also produce less carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that is the primary driver of climate change. 

Keep it up (and win a prize!) 

Returning to the workplace? You can make a difference in Atlanta’s air quality. To help keep the ball rolling, Georgia Commute Options (GCO) is giving away a $500 gift card to High Country Outfitters and a set of Apple AirPods as part of its Million Air Challenge. The goal is to collectively remove one million pounds of CO2 from the air by logging more than one million miles of clean trips to and from work. To enter, simply sign into your GCO account at mygacommuteoptions.com, opt into the challenge, and log at least one clean commute trip between August 16 and the 27th. The more trips you log, the more chances you will have to win! For help planning your cleaner commute, reach out to our Midtown Transportation team for support.  

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TRANSPORTATION SUSTAINABILITY