On a regular working day in 1802, seeing heavy layers of smog hanging over the city of Manchester was nothing out of ordinary. As factories running full capacity on steam power fueled by burning large volumes of coal were adding more and more layers to the skyline, it was getting harder to breathe in the city. But no worries, clouds would disperse once factories stop and a small trip to the countryside would give you the refreshment you need! This was, very simplistically, the understanding of air pollution during the first industrial revolution. People were aware that industrial manufacturing was creating air pollution for sure, but it would take 50 years to realize that it would be a direct cause of human deaths, and another 100 years to realize it would lead to a global climate crisis¹.
It would not be surprising for you to hear that things did not get any better. Carbon pollution from fossil fuels is at an all-time high². Due to fossil-fuel-based transportation and booming of the commercial building sector³, sources of air pollution are more local, distributed and sophisticated now. We are more aware of the global climate crisis thanks to the large availability of undeniable scientific data. Nevertheless we as humans doing great works, although not enough, on mitigation and adaptation to this new climate reality. There is an exponential growth of investments in renewable energies, the automotive industry is turning its face towards hybrid and electric engines, the public is more informed and pressuring politicians to create feasible solutions. Availability of advanced monitoring technologies enabling us to shape our lives to adapt to irregular environmental situations such as storms, floods, excessive heats, air pollution, etc.
Shortest route vs. Greenest route
Imagine you sitting in your office, it is almost the end of the working day, you wanted to check out the traffic on your iPhone. Any navigation app will give you choices varied between two parameters: shortest distance and shortest time. In the last couple of years, navigation algorithms have tried to implement eco-routing in their algorithms as well. Rather than looking for the shortest time and distance, it looks for a path that requires less fuel and reduces emissions.
According to Conversation Magazine, researches did a study in 2013, analyzing the costs and benefits of eco-routing⁴. They ran simulations of traffic in downtown Cleveland and Columbus, which include highways, arterials, and smaller local roads. Both are busy urban areas; during rush hour, for example, about 65,000 cars drive through downtown Cleveland per hour. In one case they found that the eco-route cut fuel use by 18 percent but took 44 percent longer. The team also found that fuel savings were particularly high when streets were congested. This is a promising study to alleviate our bad effect on the environment, yet it only covers transportation by automobiles.
Considering the heavy reliance on private transportation in the US this is not surprising. Can we come up with a more sophisticated way to figure out the best route that will both create a minimum amount of carbon footprint, and save us from being subject to low air quality? This is the question that got me thinking.
The Air We Breathe
Human-made air pollution is shortening life spans especially for those living in metropolitan cities. Thanks to a variety of air quality monitoring websites and apps such as Waqi and Breezometer we have the chance to know the average air quality in our areas. These technologies can help us arrange our activities such as to decided when to go for a walk/run, take the kids out based on the current air quality.
(Mostly European) Cities where public transportation and biking routes are relatively developed, people tend to utilize these opportunities rather than relying on private cars. Even though you minimize your carbon footprint by biking or walking to your destination you’d still be subject to bad air quality that would damage your health. What if our navigation apps consider this as a parameter when suggesting a route? What if not only minimizing our effect on the environment, we could also minimize the environment’s effect on us? Can an algorithm be developed that would find us an optimal route with a shorter distance, shorter time and cleaner air? This is a challenge that requires infrastructural change.
Hyper-local Air Monitoring
As briefly mentioned above, air pollution has become more local and distributed due to the large availability of cars and commercial buildings. Our air quality monitoring efforts should also be localized. Most of the air quality measurements are being conducted by utilizing a couple of air quality stations and processing of satellite images. Waqi and Breezometer, for example, take a generalist approach to air monitoring, rather than monitoring sudden and local changes they do projections based on a limited amount of hard air quality data. But this method does not respond to the rapid changes in air quality in all parts of a city.
Air pollution is everywhere, air quality changes even by the hours we should be able to monitor these changes. We should invest in hyperlocal air quality monitoring systems that are smaller, cheaper and easier to set up and put them on every street: on street/traffic lambs, on taxis, around schools, etc. This localized, precise data will help the public to get a clear sense of the air they breathe in their streets at the specific moment, help developers to build smarter navigation algorithms.
No Route Found, Call Your Mayor.
You might rightfully think that you can simply take metro rather than your car and it’ll result in less carbon footprint and you’ll be not be inhaling carbon monoxide. Sadly this is not always the case. It was lately found that, for example, the air quality in metro stations in Istanbul is actually worse than on the street level.
It is already a challenge to optimize routes, adding another highly fluctuating variable will make it harder to find the perfect path. But it is not impossible. Consider this scenario: You want to go from point A to point B, you enter your destination on your navigation app and app suggest you options in two categories, shortest time & distance, or healthiest route. Under each category, the app would suggest the modes of transportation. Want to follow the shortest distance, take your car, want to avoid traffic, take two metros and walk a bit. If you don’t want to get more stressed by low air quality, take a bike from nearest bike-sharing dock and bike until one middle point, walk for a couple of minutes and take a bus for an inclined route. This can only be achieved by hyper-local air monitoring and smarter algorithms.
What if we can’t find this impossible route? That means your city has two major problems: high air pollution in main transportation routes, less public green areas. Hyperlocal air monitoring will also allow us to be more active citizens, defend your rights and participate in making of environmental policies. Apart from everything, a healthy environment is a human right.
What do you think? Share your comments below to contribute to this article.
¹ Geraldine Carrodus, M. E. (2016). The Industrial Revolution. In Oxford Big Ideas Humanities 9 Victorian Curriculum(pp. 273–295). London: Oxford University Press.
² Science is Settled, Climate Reality Project,(2019), https://www.climaterealityproject.org/climate-101
³ Kahn, Matthew & Kok, Nils & M. Quigley, John. (2014). Carbon Emissions from the Commercial Building Sector: The Role of Climate, Quality, and Incentives. Journal of Public Economics.
⁴ For Greener Routing, Try Eco-Routing, https://www.conservationmagazine.org/2013/10/greener-driving-try-eco-routing/