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Shelter-in-place orders causing shift in travel patterns, air quality

The advice is to stay at home to save lives, and staying home is doing that in more than one way. As people travel less, there's a positive impact on air quality.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In an effort to flatten the curve, schools and businesses are going virtual, businesses have shut down temporarily, and the advice from officials is simple: stay home and save lives.

But the orders are doing even more than that. They are also causing a shift in our travel patterns.

People across the country have wondered what this is doing to our air quality. It seems logical, given that nearly 30% of our greenhouse gas emissions come from automobiles, that less traffic would equal better air quality.

Research from Streetlight shows vehicle miles traveled is down from January 2020 to May 2020.

Credit: Climate Central

There is a slight uptick in travel recently as states and counties start to reopen, but the trend took a sharp decline in April.

Some areas were seeing an over 60% decrease in miles traveled.

When looking specifically at the Southern Sacramento Valley, Northern San Joaquin Valley, Sierra foothills and surrounding Sierra Mountains, certain counties saw significant drops in the percentage of miles traveled.

El Dorado, Placer, Amador  and Solano counties saw between a 63% and 66% drop in travel.

Credit: kxtv

A study out of the University of California in Davis authored by Fraser Shilling, PhD., looked into the impacts of this reduction in travel. Along with finding a stark drop in travel, there was a correlation to COVID-19 deaths and cases with decreased traffic.

With less people driving, fuel use and fuel tax revenue dropped.

A short-term, but positive unintended change, is improved air quality. Less cars and trucks on the road, means less emissions. This helps us move toward achieving goals for Greenhouse Gas Emission reductions set forth by the Paris Climate Accord.

The study found, "US greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that cause climate change were reduced by 4% in total and by 13% from transportation in the almost 8 weeks since many stay-at-home orders went into effect."

Research from Climate Central, a nonprofit news organization that analyzes and reports on climate science, shows these short-term gains won't stop the trend of rising CO2 levels in our atmosphere. It took years to get to this point, and it will take years to start the trend down.

However, the current travel patterns though give us a snapshot of how the atmosphere responds to less cars and trucks on the roads. 

Follow the conversation on Facebook with Monica Woods.

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WATCH MORE: California Coronavirus Latest | Gov. Newsom Briefing (May 13, 2020)