Understanding Air Quality As Mobility Behaviours Change Across Society

Sam Chapman - March 29th, 2021

car driving with pollution coming from the exhaust pipe

Air quality has long been a major worldwide concern given its tremendous impact on the environment, health and the global economy. The World Health Organisation (WHO) currently estimates that 4.2 million deaths can be directly attributed to outdoor air pollution every year. While the overall economic impacts of poor air quality are estimated to be around 3% of global GDP every year. 

Over 91% of the world’s population live in areas where the air is at levels declared a threat to human health, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classed all outdoor air pollution as a class 1 carcinogen since 2013. This is the highest possible level and means that our air is classified at the same threat level as neutron radiation, due to its carcinogenic properties. Ultimately, everyone across the world is impacted by the poor quality of our outdoor air, wherever and however they live. 

Tackling poor outdoor air quality requires an understanding of various pollutants and originating sources, e.g burning fuels, industrial solvents, and waste treatment, as well as natural sources like volcanic ash. In recent decades, many new insights regarding pollutants have informed ways of minimising initial emissions of the most harmful pollutants. 

These steps have helped to make significant improvements in many areas, but a colossal challenge remains, particularly relating to transport emissions in close proximity to human activity. To date, only minor (albeit positive) changes have been achieved despite advances in electric vehicles, fuel optimisation and overall understanding of air pollution/clean mobility. 

Since March 2020, a rapid behavioural shift has occurred across global society as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. These behavioural changes have impacted everything from industrial activity to retail and social movements and transport usage, in an attempt to control the spread of the virus. 

The long-term impact of the pandemic on emissions is still being investigated, but in order to bring clarity to these new uncertainties, The Floow has been studying changes to mobility and the impacts they have on vehicle emissions.

Driven by our core mission “to make mobility safer and smarter for everyone”, which covers a number of areas including air quality, we have been involved in a variety of projects using our unique insights into mobility to help understand vehicle emissions. 

One such project is WM-Air, which we are currently involved in. This is a longitudinal investigation of air quality taking place over a number of years, and looking at changing emissions, localised impacts and mitigations. To date, we have focused our activity on developing the world’s largest telematic emissions monitoring testbed, which has provided us with the ability to observe and understand large scale driving behavioural changes by location, using aggregated anonymous mobility data. 

This analysis is being carried out across a large region of the UK (the whole West Midlands area) so mobility patterns and changes can be examined across differing environments including urban centres, connective roads, villages and rural regions, over multiple years. Ultimately, our investigation is looking at the impact of driver behaviour upon localised vehicle emissions, and importantly, this work has examined changes in driver behaviours since the onset of COVID, and the subsequent restrictions of movement and mobility. 

When looking at driver behaviour pre-COVID, aggregated driver behaviour followed long established patterns with emissions escalating in stop-start traffic at peak times and in particular locations. These results could be used to optimise infrastructure and traffic flow, as well as prove the value of particular mitigations such as clean air zones (CAZ). 

By comparing this to the changes observed over the last year, it is clear to see that long established mobility patterns have altered. Despite an extensive drop in traffic volumes, some of the vehicles that were still using the roads during restrictions travelled faster and more aggressively, resulting in an overall increase in emissions per vehicle. By collecting and analysing journey data which highlights these localised traffic changes over the last 12 months, we now have a detailed view of the impacts of behaviour changes to localised emission hotspots, and the evolving impacts of this on society.

Work on these projects has been aided by our mobility insights service, MobilityIn, which applies analytics models over anonymous driving behaviour data to create and supply evidence and insights which can support infrastructure and transport development initiatives. 

Data from our MobilityIn service can be used as a key input into the modelling of vehicle emissions. It provides us with a detailed understanding of emissions across the entire road network, which can help to inform more ecological road infrastructure changes, making mobility smarter, safer and greener for everyone.

To find out more about MobilityIn, get in touch with us via mobility@thefloow.com

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