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Can US cities preserve some of their pandemic environmental gains?

Even if US cities could maintain a 10 per cent drop in traffic volumes in the recovery phase, they could significantly improve their climate impact standing, according to a new study by StreetLight Data.

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Los Angeles would move from 34th to 17th position with a 10 per cent drop in VMT
Los Angeles would move from 34th to 17th position with a 10 per cent drop in VMT

Even if US cities could maintain a 10 per cent drop in traffic volumes in the post-pandemic recovery phase, they could significantly improve their standing when it comes to tackling the climate emergency, according to a new study by StreetLight Data.

 

The mobility metrics company said driving in most metro areas fell by more than half after 1 March as Covid-19 lockdowns began to be introduced.

 

While it acknowledges that the drop is not sustainable in the post-pandemic recovery period the company has released a new special report, Post-Covid Climate Impact, that reveals the environmental benefits of a more achievable 10 per cent drop in vehicle miles travelled (VMT).

 

Informing policies and projects

 

Martin Morzynski, vice president of marketing at StreetLight Data, told SmartCitiesWorld that he hopes cities use the data to inform policies and projects that preserve recent reductions in VMT while “enhancing mobility in an equitable way”.

 

He continued: “Anecdotally, people around the entire country seem to have enjoyed the benefits associated with lower traffic levels over the past few months and less noise, cleaner air, safer streets for non-motorised users.

 

“Many cities reclaimed streets for other purposes like walking, biking, even outdoor restaurant seating, and some places have indicated plans to make those changes permanent. For some government agencies, vehicle miles travelled directly relates to funding, so there will need to be a balance.”

 

In January of this year, StreetLight Data unveiled the first annual 2020 US Transportation Climate Impact Index, which ranked the 100 most populous metro areas based on several carbon-related transportation factors.

 

It identified metros with the most and least environmentally friendly transportation. New York, San Francisco and Madison were identified as leading the way in “lower-Impact” transportation. The bottom-ranked metro overall was Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington with Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale and Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land placed 99th and 98th respectively.

 

StreetLight Data explained that since VMT is the most heavily weighted factor on its list of criterion, updating that value makes a major difference in how the metro areas rank.

“For some government agencies, vehicle miles travelled directly relates to funding, so there will need to be a balance.”

Examples include: Los Angeles originally ranked at number 34 but would move up to 17th position with a 10 per cent drop in VMT; Denver was originally ranked 59th but would move up to 35th; Seattle was ranked number 63 but would move up to 33rd; and Atlanta was placed 91st and would move to 76th position.

 

StreetLight has also unveiled an online widget that will enable city planners, transportation experts, local, state and federal government officials (as well as consumers) to model slider-enabled changes in VMT, to visualise the potential effects on 100 major metros around the country.

 

Morzynski said StreetLight Data is already working with cities across the US and Canada to help them better understand where people switched from driving to walking or biking.

 

He added: “We absolutely plan to continue working with cities and other agencies to design a safer, better transportation system for these (and all) modes.

 

“StreetLight’s goal has always been, and will continue to be, to support data-driven transportation decisions that lead to better outcomes for all people and the environment.”

 

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