Safer at Home Order Leads to Fewer Cars on the Road on 50th Anniversary of Earth Day

Fifty years ago, a bipartisan Congress passed the 1970 Clean Air Act (CAA). This act resulted in improved air quality across the country. But despite the success of the Clean Air Act in controlling common pollutants, air pollution continues to be our single biggest environmental health risk today.

At that time, plummeting air quality resulted in hundreds of deaths as killer smog blanketed major cities and acid rain made air pollution an interstate issue, leading Congress to react to the crisis. The Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, tightening regulations in 1977 and making further amendments in 1990.

In recent years, there has been an increase in dangerous air pollution levels accompanied by demands for stronger air quality regulations to mitigate health risks, combat the climate crisis and support economic growth.

But as the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the CAA, on Earth Day, which was also first celebrated in 1970, the country is on lockdown and many people are marveling at just how fast the planet seems to be healing. The Coalition for Clean Air has been working to protect public health, improve air quality, and prevent climate change since 1971.

David Cross spoke with Brian Sheridan, Coalition for Clean development director about the changes to the air quality since the lockdown started and what we should do next.

Pasadena Now: I’ve been reading that because everyone’s staying at home and no one’s driving and businesses are closed. the air is cleaning up in various cities around the world, and  pollution has virtually stopped. What is your take on this?

Brian Sheridan: The transportation sector is responsible for a disproportionate share of our air pollution in California, particularly in Southern California. From a greenhouse gas perspective, it’s about 40 percent. It’s not surprising that our air pollution would go down precipitously at the same time.

We’ve had some amazing really solid rainstorms and the weather does play a really big role in that. But, behavior change and our personal actions are playing a big role. When you’ve got folks staying at home in mass, this is the result, but it’s certainly not the way that we want to get to clean air.

Is this sort of an unexpected side effect of the Coronavirus stay at home orders?

It’s totally unexpected. I mean, who could have seen this coming. The Coalition for Clean air a few years ago, we sort of recognized that in addition to making sure that the right incentives were in place to get people on electric cars and that we put cleaner trucks on the freeway and that all of the technologies are being adopted. We also saw some reports that told us that vehicle miles traveled were increasing in California. It was that impetus that we started a big campaign called California Clean Air Day to try to get people to do things like telecommute and, um, you know, take public transit, et cetera.

This kind of shows a stark contrast between the environment with us and the environment without us.

It’s really incredible. Given what we know, not just from a climate perspective, but just from a health perspective about the impacts of air pollution. Hopefully for a lot of folks it’s a wake-up call to say, ‘Oh wow, we really could have some really clean air.’

Do you think this helps the scientists’ conversation about this? A lot of scientists say, ‘We need to change things otherwise we’ll be in trouble.’

I think when people can see what happens, I mean literally quite literally see what happens the impetus to create change, can be really strong. And we’ve seen that, you know, in lots of different examples throughout history.

One thing that was really interesting to me is how quickly it cleaned up, how quickly the earth sort of is repairing itself or cleaning up the pollution. Did they know it would happen so quickly?

Well, to be fair, I don’t know that any scientists that we’ve worked with had looked at or thought about anything happening at this scale. It has been remarkable to see.

Here’s something else that’s really interesting that people should pay attention to. Despite all of this, the levels of particulate matter here in Southern California for example, are not at zero. Part of the reason for that is that the freight sector, the port and freight, the trucks on the road, they’re still in operation. Here in Southern California, we’ve done a really great job of cleaning up emissions coming from automobiles, but it’s been a little bit of a slower road with our trucks. I think that’s important to note. The really cool thing is that there are some amazing, there’s some amazing technology out there that could help to change that.

Let’s say traffic during the COVID virus shutdown was reduced by 60 or 70 percent. What role does that play?

I’ve heard some reports to say it’s down as much as 90 percent in some areas. Clearly that’s played a huge role. Again, transportation is the biggest source of air pollution in our region.

Where do we go from here?

I think there’s a couple of things that we have to pay attention to. You know, one is I would hope that some companies that, had not considered the opportunity to telecommute as a regular part of their operations make it a regular thing.

We’re looking at some of the statistics right now with some, some really positive results about what that can do for local air pollution. The other thing is that for those that have to get to their jobs wherever they may be, that we keep the incentives strong at the state level so that people can get into an electric vehicle. The third is that we continue to put the cleanest trucks on the road so that those vehicles that bear a disproportionate share of air pollution here are much cleaner.

Well, those are oil guzzling gas, diesel, guzzling monsters. That technology definitely needs to be updated.

They do. I, and it’s one of the reasons why we passed the coalition for clean air and our partners supported legislation last year called SB 210 to create for the very first time a small check program for heavy duty trucks. Um, which I think would surprise a lot of people that have to get their car smog checked that we actually have a program for the most dirty vehicles on the road. So we’re really excited about that. In addition, there are a ton of amazing companies that are creating alternative fuel trucks that they’re putting out there, electric trucks, natural gas trucks. It will be a pretty exciting time if we can get those on the road.

I think it’s exciting that everyone stayed home and the climate cleaned up in a matter of a month. I mean, that’s just amazing to me. So I think it’s time for us to all step back and say, well what can we do? On a personal level and the city and state level and the federal level, I mean, what can we really do to make this a reality?

Well, David, I’m glad you said that, I live in Arcadia and our office is in downtown Los Angeles. And so I’m able to take the gold line from the Sierra Madre Villa stop. I’ve made it a point, to ride my bike to that at least once a week, to mixed success, you know, keeping up with my, my promise. Let’s create a day where people can make a pledge to try something that they wouldn’t normally try on one day. October 7th will be the next California clean air day where we’re encouraging everybody to take the clean air play. And it could be biking to work that day or taking public transit, or it could just be switching out your household cleaner to something better, you know, try one thing that you wouldn’t normally do and you never know. It might be, it might be easier than you thought, or it might be like, okay, well, I tried it.

Anything else on this topic you’d like the public to know?

I just want to wish everybody a really happy 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, which is Wednesday. At one time, the San Gabriel Valley was kind of the epicenter of air pollution. But the greater LA basin, regardless, it’s still usually, the worst, most polluted basin in the country. So we still got a lot of work to do. We have made tremendous progress and it’s thanks to a really forward thinking bipartisan act of Congress 50 years ago that made it all possible.