Air Quality Alert Days Should Be a Call for Better Streets, Not to Stay Indoors

Photo: triin | Flickr

The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) issued an air quality alert for the state beginning Wednesday that could extend into Friday. Air quality alerts were also issued by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the New York State Department of Environmental ConservationHigh temperatures will elevate ground-level ozone pollution to a level considered unhealthy for the elderly, children and those with respiratory problems. Ground-level ozone forms when pollutants–like car exhaust–chemically react in sunlight.

The first response to an air quality alert is usually to advise people to stay inside and to avoid strenuous activity outside. It’s certainly not a bad idea, but this type of messaging addresses only the symptoms, not the cause of air pollution.

Emissions that create ground-level ozone (the “bad” type of ozone) derive from a variety of sources, like power plants, industrial facilities, certain chemical solvents and, of course, motor vehicle exhaust. While reducing air pollution requires a multi-pronged effort from different sectors and stakeholders, transportation is an easy target. In 2013, transportation was responsible for more than half of carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide emitted in the U.S.

DEEP advised Connecticut residents to drive less by carpooling, opting for transit or even telecommuting during the air quality alert period. And for long-term strategies, the agency recommended considering a switch to an electric vehicle.

But ultimately, telling people to stay inside effectively accepts poor air quality days as a fact of life. An even better long-term strategy would be for state and local governments to make political and financial investments in a transportation network that prioritizes low- and zero-emission modes, like transit, walking and biking.

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