How Much Pollution Do Cars Produce In NYC?

How Much Pollution Do Cars Produce In NYC?

Auto, Aviation & Transportation : Science

Air Quality and the Automobile in New York City

“I not only saw the pollution, I wiped it off my windowsills,” asserted environmental lawyer Albert Butzel. “You’d look at the horizon and it would be yellowish.” Butzel was referencing New York City’s 1966 Smog Disaster, in which health officials advised those with respiratory issues to remain indoors due to sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide suffocating New York City for four days.

The 1966 Smog Disaster increased public support for environmental regulation. Increased policies to mitigate air pollution were soon implemented by John Lindsay’s mayoralty, and public opinion contributed to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the passage of the 1967 Air Quality Act, and the passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act. New York City’s air quality improved at a slow, steady pace after its apex in the 1960s, but has recently worsened since 2017, and New York City is currently the twentieth worst polluted metro area in the United States.

Air pollution contributes to a litany of health issues.

Moreover, a 2016 Columbia University study estimated that approximately 2,700 deaths annually are caused by harmful matter in the air. New York City’s pollution and emissions can largely be attributed to increased automobile usage, which both worsens air quality and contributes to the threat of climate change. Policy action has been used to resolve previous environmental crises in New York City and elsewhere and should be used by New York City’s government now to address automobile usage and thereby decrease air pollution.

As the development of factories releasing copious amounts of pollutants increased exponentially in New York City in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, public officials’ priorities regarding pollution shifted from the contamination of public water supplies for drinking purposes to harmful chemicals in the air. While New Yorkers noticed the decreased air quality, contemporary scientists lacked the ability to discover the origins of the pollution and suggest solutions. Public officials aimed to quantify the air pollution and address it; as a result, the first recorded occurrence of citywide research into air pollution took place in 1935 and compared the dust accumulations at observation points in the five boroughs, Westchester, and Jones Beach. Despite this research, large-scale projects to address worsening air quality were not enacted at the time.

These issues culminated in November 1953, when clouds of smog suffocated New York City and led to the deaths of approximately 230 New Yorkers, largely due to a lack of preparation by public health officials.
A parade of dignitaries, led by Mayor O’Dwyer and Robert Moses, travel by motorcade through the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel on its Opening Day, May 25, 1950, where they were welcomed by a cheering crowd on the Manhattan side. Photo: MTA Bridges and Tunnels Special Archive

While this tragedy warranted urgent policy action to prevent future occurrences, minimal change took place. In a New York Times article detailing the incident published on November 15, 1953, there is no mention of health issues or deaths; rather, it focuses on the transit of Mercury across the sun. The only significant change to New York City’s policies came in the form of measuring air quality levels and creating the Department of Air Pollution Control. These methods were also largely unscientific; for the next thirteen years, all air quality measurements for New York City were taken from the Harlem Courthouse, leading to results unrepresentative of the entirety of New York City.

Though several scientists warned of an impending disaster, their words were largely ignored by public officials. In 1963, climate scientist Helmut Landsberg suggested that the Northeast would experience smog disasters triennially if current trends continued. Furthermore, in 1966, Walter Roberts, director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, foretold impending smog that could kill up to 10,000 people and pinpointed New York City and Los Angeles as the most likely locations.

In May 1966, a report to New York City Mayor John Lindsay asserted that New York had the worst air quality of any major American city proportional to its land area.
New York Mayor Lindsay carries in his budget

The report declared motor vehicles the main cause of air pollution, criticizing the lack of regulation on the 1.5 million cars driven in New York City that release noxious gases and particulate matter. Moreover, the report’s suggestions included expanding electric power for buses, implementing lightweight taxicabs, and offering monorail transportation to airports. It predicted that “all the ingredients now exist for an air-pollution disaster of major proportions.” 

The report’s prognostications proved to be accurate, as the Smog Disaster of 1966 unfolded mere months later. During a four-day period in November 1966, New York City closed garbage incinerators, told residents to avoid driving unless necessary, and advised those with health concerns to remain indoors to avoid the smog.

Though public officials connected to Mayor Lindsay and the city’s Commissioner of Hospitals originally denied that the smog caused any deaths, the contrary soon became undeniable. A December 1966 study concluded that 10% of New York City residents had experienced adverse health effects as a result of the smog, and later studies estimated a death toll between 169 and 400 as a direct result of the smog.

A report from the mayor’s office after the incident suggested that the city was spared an “unspeakable tragedy” by favorable weather conditions, and if there were stagnant smog:

“everyone in the city would have long since perished from the poisons in the air.”

Public pressure to prevent future disasters on local, state, and federal governments increased, and several pieces of legislation were soon implemented. In the following years, the New York City Administrative Code’s policies regarding pollutants were strengthened, thirty-eight new monitoring stations were opened, and a new Air Pollution Control Code was passed by the City Council. Federally, New York’s 1966 smog contributed to the 1970 Clean Air Act passed under President Nixon, which mandated air quality levels for individual states and remains one of the strongest pieces of environmental legislation in American history. Furthermore, in 1972, sulfur dioxide and fine particulate matter levels in New York City were approximately half of their 1966 levels.

While the combination of these policies succeeded in preventing future smog disasters of the same degree, air pollution remains a serious problem in the current day. Though New York City’s air pollution decreased in the final decades of the twentieth century, it has worsened over the past several years. This increase in pollution can largely be attributed to increased automobile usage; while electricity and transportation both accounted for 34% of New York City’s carbon dioxide emissions in 1990, transportation accounted for 42% of emissions in 2015 while electricity had fallen to 17% of emissions, and these trends have continued since.

As of 2018, the most recent year with publicly available data, the transportation sector accounted for 47% of all emissions. The quantity of total urban vehicle miles traveled increased by 111% between 1980 and 2003, and a 2008 Department of Transportation model predicted a 50% increase in vehicle miles between 2010 and 2030. New Yorkers have also recently used sports utility vehicles and trucks in larger quantities, which use more fuel and therefore harm air quality. Increased suburban sprawl and reliance on the automobile has recently exacerbated these trends. Moreover, attempts to curb automobile usage by expanding the accessibility of public transportation and raising fuel taxes have largely been unsuccessful. 

As a result, any policy action aiming to improve New York City’s air quality necessarily needs to mitigate the pervasive influence of the automobile.

In recent years, New York City’s municipal government has attempted to tackle the issue of air quality through programs including PlaNYC and the more recent OneNYC. PlaNYC was an initiative spearheaded by Mayor Bloomberg in 2007 and aimed to increase New York City’s sustainability and reduce harmful emissions. OneNYC, its successor, was announced in 2015 and has been focused on the same goals.

In 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency allocated $9.35 million to New York State. Moreover, in order to improve the monitoring and regulation of air pollution. Including $1.5 million to three New York-based organizations working to address environmental injustices. However, this aid is far too small of an amount to make a sizable dent in the issues of air pollution and climate change in New York City. As electric vehicles have considerably less carbon emissions and release less fine particulate matter, as a result, they have recently been hailed as the most feasible solution to this crisis. Furthermore, a 2020 initiative led by the New York State government aimed to increase their prevalence.

At the time of its launch, this program aimed to have 10,000 public charging stations by 2022 and 850,000 electric vehicles by 2025. While this program is beneficial, it will not singlehandedly solve the problem in the short term. The average upfront price of an electric vehicle is $56,437, while the industry average including both gas-run and electric vehicles is approximately $10,000 lower, making them largely inaccessible to those without substantial disposable income.

One possible solution to issues with New York City’s air quality is the implementation of congestion pricing policies in New York City. Congestion pricing imposes fees on vehicles that enter a given area to address a negative externality of automobile usage. When drivers use a given road they are benefited by its convenience and mobility. In addition, they directly pay in the form of gas costs and the time it takes to drive.

However, they do not individually experience certain hidden costs that stem from driving, such as the environmental harms and congestion which their trip contributes to. As a result, by implementing fees on drivers for these externalities, congestion pricing disincentivizes unnecessary automobile usage. This incentivizes New Yorkers to use other methods of public transportation, such as the subway or buses, decreases congestion which is uniquely harmful to air quality, and improves the city’s walkability.

Congestion pricing is currently used in a multitude of cities, most notably Singapore, London, Milan, and Stockholm, and has been largely successful. Singapore first implemented congestion pricing in 1975, charging all passenger vehicles that entered the Central Business District during morning peak hours a flat fee. Within months, congestion in the Central Business District decreased by 20%, and a modified version of this plan remains in place today.

When London first implemented congestion pricing in 2012, traffic decreased by 30% within the congestion zone in the next year and the average vehicular speed increased by 1.2 miles per hour.

Prince Edward Theatre, Old Compton Street

There are also additional benefits of congestion pricing; London’s emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter from vehicles have decreased by 12% since these policies went into effect, and the fees have raised £2.6 billion for the city’s government, much of which has been reinvested into public transportation. Similar effects have taken place in Milan and Stockholm, and all of these cities have experienced benefits to their air quality in the years following the introduction of their congestion pricing systems.

Congestion pricing has long been considered in New York City.

In 1933, the New York City Comptroller proposed introducing tolls on bridges to enter Manhattan to reduce congestion and Mayor O’Brien suggested charging New York City residents for vehicle ownership. When the city was found in violation of the Clean Air Act in the early 1970s, Mayor Lindsay supported banning or limiting traffic in Manhattan’s Financial District, but later withdrew his plan at the behest of business executives and amid fear of economic harm.

9/7/1981 President Reagan during a ceremony to present New York City Mayor Koch with a check for Westway Project Funds with Marion Cuomo Drew Lewis Al D’Amato Raymond Donovan and Daniel Moynihan in New York City

Mayor Koch offered a similar proposal in the early 1980s and settled for a ban on private vehicles on 49th and 50th street during weekdays, which reduced traffic and contributed to New York City being in compliance with the Clean Air Act by the end of 1981. Congestion pricing largely disappeared from the realm of public discourse until 2007, when Mayor Bloomberg proposed charging fees to vehicles that entered the portion of Manhattan below 86th Street, though his proposal failed in the New York State Assembly after being approved by the New York City Council. The most recent proposal for congestion pricing came courtesy of Governor Cuomo in 2017 using a congestion zone south of 59th Street with the exception of the West Side Highway and the FDR drive, and the proposal is currently awaiting approval and implementation.

Instead of forcing people to pay to drive in certain areas, another solution involves simply closing streets to cars to address congestion and its environmental harms. In a particularly high profile historical example, Mayor Bloomberg closed portions of Broadway around Times Square to automobiles in order to create walking areas and pedestrian plazas. Beginning in March 2020, Mayor de Blasio announced the Open Streets program to close streets to cars and increase access to pedestrians during certain portions of the day. By the summer of 2020, New York City had expanded the program to more than sixty-seven miles of streets and automobile usage had decreased along a similar trajectory.

According to a January 2021 poll, 63% of New York City voters support expanding the Open Streets program in their neighborhood.

While an expansion of this program or the implementation of congestion pricing. As a result, would be beneficial to reduce pollution and improve air quality. Furthermore, would necessarily have to be accompanied by improvements to New York City’s public transportation system.

Physics Nobel Prize Winner MIT Prof Frank Wilczek on String Theory, Gravitation, Newton & Big Bang

In particular, without improvements to the accessibility and convenience of New York City’s subway system, many residents could elect to continue using their cars. Furthermore, if this implementation were to take place without a sufficient increase in funding to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, it could worsen congestion as drivers would have less roads to use. 

As New York City emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, public officials have a unique opportunity to drastically adjust its automobile-centric culture.

Moreover, set an example for other cities around the world. New York has over 6,000 miles of streets composing approximately 27% of the city’s total area, more than any other major American city. The issue of New York’s air pollution requires drastic action, and affects more people than those who directly die as a result of it. Poor air quality causes long-term health ramifications, and disproportionately harms disadvantaged communities.

In conclusion, Asian-American New Yorkers experience twice as much particulate matter pollution. As their white counterparts, Latino New Yorkers experience 81% more pollution than white residents. In addition, African-American New Yorkers experience 72% more than white residents, which exacerbates historic systemic inequalities. Moreover, the United Nations believes that many effects of climate change will be irreversible by 2030. Without changes to our current trajectory, and the same chemicals that contribute to New York City’s poor air quality exacerbate global warming processes. Policy action has previously been used to resolve previous environmental crises in New York City such as the Smog Disaster of 1966. And, lastly should be used by New York City’s government now to address automobile usage and thereby decrease air pollution.

Written by Benjamin Binday

How Much Pollution Do Cars Produce In NYC?

Auto, Aviation & Transportation : Science

How Much Pollution Do Cars Produce In NYC? Bibliography:

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How Much Pollution Do Cars Produce In NYC?