Can better data give us the political will to address air pollution?

COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to address toxic emissions – can better data give us the political will to do it, writes Dani Simons, head of public sector partnerships at Waze a live navigation platform that utilises technology and the human touch to solve transportation challenges 

The COVID-19 outbreak has had a devastating impact on people around the world, both socially and economically. We’ve seen towns and cities come to a virtual standstill as governments introduced lockdown restrictions to help curb the outbreak.

However, the crisis has presented us with an opportunity that we cannot ignore. With the drop in traffic levels as the world stayed at home, we have seen what the effect of reducing the number of cars on the road can have both on our carbon footprint and on local air quality.

In the UK specifically, research has found that the nation’s carbon emissions fell by 36% in the first four weeks of lockdown.

Trips were reduced unless absolutely necessary, and Waze’s data showed that Britons were following government guidelines closely. Compared to the February daily average over two weeks, we saw that there had been a 70% decrease in daily kilometres driven by Waze users on British roads since lockdown began on the 23 March. 

As we begin to see the relaxation of stay-at-home guidance, traffic is slowly returning to pre-crisis levels as people avoid public transport and aim to travel in the safest way possible. Waze drivers have now returned to 75% of typical driving levels since the UK’s lockdown began.

We are at a tipping point. People have seen the benefits of cleaner air and quieter streets during this time. Yet fear of crowded conditions on public transport is pulling many in a different direction.

We’re seeing predictions that those who can afford to will buy cars to replace their previous mode of transport for commuting. This could result in more driving than before – leading to increased levels of traffic and air pollution.

This tug of war does not happen in a vacuum. Policy interventions from expanding space for walking and cycling, to extending the hours for congestion charging in Central London, all encourage a ‘new normal’ for our transportation network that will be less polluting, better for the climate and for public health.

But these decisions can be politically challenging, and that is where good data comes in.

Our Waze for Cities two-way data-sharing platform helps governments, local authorities and research bodies around the world to inform sound policies and infrastructure decisions. Partners who have access to the platform receive real-time traffic insights and are increasingly linking this data to air pollution data sets to evaluate how the way we move impacts air quality around the world.

Most recently, we worked with Breathe London and EDF to help them dig deeper into London’s air pollution reduction during the height of the pandemic.

Breathe London harnessed the Waze for Cities platform to compare the speed on roads as compared to free-flow traffic. As a result, they found that traffic congestion reduced dramatically, with the vast majority of Greater London roads approaching free-flow after the stay-at-home order, even during what used to be peak commuting hours. They were also able to show a concurrent decrease in NO2 levels.

Studies like this show how data-sharing partnerships can help governments, NGOs and academics understand larger trends in transportation and air pollution. These collaborations will then go on to inform good policies that help us emerge from this pandemic in a way that is more sensible for the environment and public health.

The COVID-19 outbreak will continue to change our ways of life immeasurably, and the way we travel is no exception. But by making contributions to help cities understand how their local motorists move around, and by reconfiguring current systems to accommodate new mobility patterns, Waze can contribute positively to the move towards the future.

Photo Credit – Pixabay

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John Coulman

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JOHN. B