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How Fewer Cars on the Road Have Affected the Environment

June 9, 2020

Since self-quarantine and shelter-in-place orders began earlier this year, a lot has happened worldwide. No one could have predicted life would change as much as it has. However, a few surprising positives have sprouted from the ashes. Families are spending more time together, and the environment has enjoyed a little human detox!

With flights on hold, travelers staying home, and fewer vehicles on the road, there has been a significant decrease in the amount of carbon emissions and waste polluting the environment. Before and after photos are revealing blue skies above major cities for the first time in decades. Popular coastal towns where motor boats ferry millions of tourists have also seen significantly clearer waters.


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What does this say about our commuter habits? Have we gone too far with our carbon-friendly lifestyles? Is there something we can do to help maintain this eye-opening drop in emissions? The short answer is, yes. The pandemic has changed both the present and the future. While we’re likely to see a shift in remote working – great news for van-lifers and road-trippers – there are still a few things we can do to keep our carbon footprint at a minimum, starting with what and how we drive.

Facts About Car Pollution

No matter how eco-friendly we want to be, we live in a world where gas-powered vehicles are a necessity. Hybrid and electric options continue to evolve, but it could be decades before the majority of cars around the world are smog and GHG-free. 

What are GHGs?

Greenhouse gasses (GHGs, for short), including water vapor, ozone, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, contribute to what we know as global warming. These gasses act like a blanket around the earth and can stay in the atmosphere for 100 years or more, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

How Do Cars Create Air Pollutants?

Cars emit GHGs – 99 percent of which is CO2 – through the combustion of fuel. An easy way to remember: Gasoline creates greenhouse gasses. Vehicles that aren’t taken care of with regular maintenance can also burn other fuel types or burn through gasoline faster than necessary. The combustion of fuel also emits smog, the dirty brown air that tends to hover over major metropolitan cities like Los Angeles.

Just How Bad Are Car Emissions?

Based on these stats, it’s obvious why we’re experiencing such a dramatic improvement in air quality and clarity following a few months of self-quarantine.

So, How Can We Be Better as Drivers?

Since former President Richard Nixon signed the 1970 Clean Air Act, new vehicles are required to meet strict fuel and safety standards including emissions. This is a great start, but there are plenty of other ways you can reduce your carbon footprint as a driver.

  1. Car Pool: One of the easiest ways to reduce vehicle emissions is ride sharing. Whether it’s with your spouse, roommate, or co-worker, carpooling can make going back to work or school a lot less harsh on the environment.

  2. Get Active: Walking, biking, or skating are active alternatives to driving. They also come with environmental and physical-health benefits. These, of course, aren’t practical options for everyone; especially those with long commutes or kids. However, walking your kids to school, or biking to nearby restaurants could be a small, but impactful alternative.

  3. Reduce Drive-Time: Being strategic with your driving can help you spend less time in the car, and therefore, use less gas. Plan your errands ahead of time to make sure you’re not adding unnecessary miles to your trip. Also, consider asking to change your work schedule to avoid heavy traffic; Even better, ask to work remotely more often!

  4. Get Serviced: Taking care of your car is one the best ways you can reduce carbon emissions. Simply washing your car can reduce your mpg, and getting regular maintenance will ensure you’re not leaking leaking or burning the wrong fuel.

  5. Improve Your MPG: There are a few simple habits you can form to lower your gas mileage including maintaining proper tire pressure, keeping your speed below 60mpg, and avoiding rooftop storage.

  6. Eco-Friendly Vehicles: Investing in an eco-friendly vehicle could be the next best step in keeping the air clean.

Hybrid or Emission-Free Vehicles

The best thing you could do, as a driver, to reduce your GHG emissions would be swapping for a hybrid or fully electric vehicle. These days, there are many more options for driving gas-free, and electric vehicles are improving each year:

  1. Tesla: Tesla gets the most MPGe in each vehicle-type category making it the most eco-friendly car brand.

  2. BMW i3: The 2019 i3 has an approximate range of 153 miles on a full charge.

  3. Nissan Leaf: Nissan’s electric hatchback entered the market in 2010 and the brand continues to make improvements to increase range and user experience.

  4. Chevrolet Bolt: Chevy touts its 2020 Bolt as an “affordable” all electric car with an MSRP of $36,620.

  5. Toyota Prius: Arguably the OG of hybrids, the 2020 Toyota Prius comes in 3 different configurations starting at $24,325 with an average MPG of 58 in the city.