Air quality in car-free areas

Does the air improve in car-free zones?

People often ask us this, and it's a great question. To answer, we turn to the NYC Community Air Survey, or NYCCAS. NYCCAS is our network of air quality monitors around the city.

NYCCAS monitors air with nearly 100 sensors across the city

NYCCAS air quality monitor sites: Routine site, environmental justice site, retired site

We use these monitors to measure levels of six different pollutants: fine particles (PM2.5), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), nitric oxide (NO), sulfur dioxide (SO2), ozone (O3), and black carbon (BC). Then, we combine these data with information about sources of emissions, traffic volume, wind patterns, and more to model the air quality all across the city – including in places where there are no air quality monitors. This tells us how air pollution differs between neighborhoods - and why. For example, it can tell us whether air quality is better or worse in neighborhoods that have parks compared to neighborhoods without parks.

What happens to air quality when an area goes car-free?

We can look at changes to Times Square to understand what happens to local air quality when a street is relieved of car traffic. In the summer of 2008, five blocks of Broadway through Times Square (and some adjacent space) were closed to cars, increasing the amount of plaza space available for pedestrians.

NYCCAS' nearby air quality monitor measured the air pollutants before and after the change. With this monitor, we could see whether redirecting traffic led to any changes in air quality.

First, let’s look at NO, a pollutant that primarily comes from car emissions. In early 2009, Times Square’s NO concentration was higher than the average concentration in Midtown.

What do you think happened? Extend the green line on the chart to guess how the NO concentration changed around Times Square after it went car-free.

This chart works best in Chrome.

NO went down. Did other pollutants?

Next, let’s look at PM2.5. This pollutant comes from traffic emissions, but it also comes from other sources like buildings (which, like vehicles, burn fuel), power plants, and construction.

In winter 2008, Times Square’s PM2.5 was a little bit higher than the Midtown average. Extend the green line on the chart below to guess how the PM2.5 concentration changed around Times Square when it went car-free in spring 2008.

This chart works best in Chrome.

Unlike NO, the PM2.5 concentration in Times Square didn’t change much. That’s because there are a lot more sources of PM2.5 in the area – like buildings.

On the other hand, most of the NO in the air comes from vehicle emissions. That means that when you remove traffic, you’ll remove a lot of the NO in the air.

So what's the bottom line?

The Times Square monitor showed us that a local change in traffic can result in a measurable change in local air quality - for some pollutants.

So while we don't have a monitor in other places that have gone car-free - like Prospect Park - we can use what we learned from Times Square to conclude that removing traffic from an area can improve the air quality - particularly for pollutants that mostly come from vehicle emissions.

We continue to explore the data collected through NYCCAS in Part 2.

Explore the data:

Air quality