Co-authored by Sreeram Sridhar.
Over dinner on a sultry evening last month, Saurab’s dad turned to him and asked, “How do you plan to commute to the office after the lockdown is lifted?”
Nonchalantly, he replied, “Well, as long as the metro is running, I am good!”
His uncle immediately countered, “I don’t think that is a good idea. You should buy a car if you need to go to the office.”
The concerned environmentalist that Saurab is, he said, “But I don’t need a car. The metro is convenient! I’ll be careful!”
The sound of clattering spoons paused. Everyone at the table stared at him.
You can imagine where that conversation went from there.
Health and hygiene concerns are on top of everybody’s minds because of COVID-19. And until we find a cure or a vaccine, social distancing is probably the best weapon we have to battle this pandemic.
As the lockdown is lifted, social distancing requirements will change the way we commute. This change could negate the improvements we’ve seen in the air quality over the last 3 months…
…and even make things worse than before. Can we stop that from happening?
Private transport > Public transport
Experts anticipate that individuals will continue to practice social distancing after the lockdown is lifted, and that will probably increase private vehicles on the road.
Surveys back their claim. According to research by Cars24, most people will prefer travelling in private vehicles instead of carpooling. 53% of the respondents are probably going to purchase a vehicle within the next year.
Of these 53% respondents, 25% used public transportation and cabs before the pandemic.
Another research conducted by AUTOCAR India in partnership with PremonAsia report similar changes in the mindset:
While this is uplifting news in the automotive industry…
…the clear preference of private transport over public transit systems may have negative consequences on the environment.
As most vehicles stayed put over the last 10 weeks, cities around the country have seen a drop in Particulate matter (PM), Nitrogen oxides (NOx) and Carbon Monoxide (CO) levels: pollutants commonly associated with vehicular pollution. We cannot attribute the reduction entirely to the lack of transport (for example, NOx is also emitted from thermal power plants, which have been functioning at lower capacities as industries were also shut), but it can carry a fair share of credit.
Take the pollution levels measured at the Central Pollution Control Board’s air quality monitoring station at ITO in New Delhi. ITO is one of the biggest traffic congestion spots in the city, and a large proportion of the pollution in this area is because of vehicles.
This drop in air pollutants is impressive when we compare air pollution levels at ITO between 2019 and 2020 within the lockdown period.
What is happening post-lockdown?
Surveys show that up to 80% of citizens may drive more often than before. With concerns about hygiene, people will not use ride sharing features like UberPool or Ola Share for the foreseeable future.
It is also likely that people will prefer to use their vehicles for simple chores like grocery shopping in nearby markets. Case in point: This is what happened with our friend, Karan, a few days ago…
As Karan stepped out to go buy a few bars of dark chocolate from the local market—just 500 meters away—he heard a shout behind him. “Stop!” His dad’s face appeared over the balcony. “You are not walking anywhere; I am driving you.”
“Why?” he asked. “I can walk!”
“No,” his dad replies. “It’s not safe.”
Air pollution levels are steadily increasing as the lockdown is lifting…
As vehicles return to the roads, the old problems of poor air quality and traffic jams will also return. This is clear from data since April 15, as the government slowly relaxed the lockdown in phases.
Data from the ITO station in New Delhi is telling. The graph below compares PM2.5 levels between two periods: March 23-June 5, 2019 and March 23-June 5, 2020. It reveals that after the first lockdown phase lifted on April 15, 2020, PM2.5 levels have steadily increased and returned to how they were in 2019.
With more vehicles expected to ply on roads, we can expect pollution levels to increase beyond 2019 levels through June and July.
Conclusion: Can we avoid this increase in vehicular pollution?
There is some good news. The government has announced that only vehicles compatible with Bharat Stage VI fuel can be sold from April 1, 2020. Bharat Stage VI fuel is less polluting than the Bharat Stage IV we’ve been using until now. So the new cars that appear on the roads will be less polluting.
The frequent showers we are getting throughout the country also help.
On an individual level, we can mitigate this increase in vehicular pollution by taking a few simple precautions.
- First, take advantage of the work-from-home option. Governments are recommending this, and many organizations have mandated this at least till the end of the year. If you genuinely feel that there is a health risk for you, or for anyone at your home, speak to your supervisors and negotiate a work-from-home until the pandemic ends. This choice alone will take plenty of cars out of roads.
- Second, remember that public transport has resumed in most cities with several restrictions. If you think you can make do without putting yourself or your loved ones at risk, take sufficient precautions and use them.
Similarly, take extra precautions as you go shop for essentials in neighborhood markets. Have a separate set of clothes that you wear outside and properly wash up when you reach your destination.
- Third, as you take your vehicles out of their 10-week sabbatical, head over to your nearest pollution testing station and make sure that your emissions are within permissible limits. If we are going to drive, at least we can minimize emissions from our vehicles.
- Finally, if you are thinking of buying a car (and if it fits your budget), consider purchasing a new car instead of a used car. The new car, as we mentioned, will be less polluting as it uses Bharat Stage VI fuel.
Karan managed to convince his dad that it’s okay to walk to the market; he was wearing a mask, and he promised to keep distance from people. Nevertheless, he had to change all clothes and have a bath as soon as he got back home!
Saurab, meanwhile, doesn’t have to go work from his office….yet. He’ll cross that bridge when he gets there.