Air Pollution In NYC: Are Cars The Main Problem?

300 annual traffic accidents threatened to overtake Central Park’s serene quality, driving New York City officials in 2015 to ‘return the park to the people’ and begin closing down some of the main roads. But a major threat still remains – air pollution in NYC.

Let’s discuss why reclaiming New York’s renowned landmark doesn’t mean Central Park is always safe due to poor Manhattan air quality and local environmental hazards.

Car Pollution: How Does Traffic Contribute to Air Pollution?

While today the city does permit vehicle traffic through Central Park, it restricts entry at specific hours. While these restrictions reduce accident potential, they don’t solve the greater air pollution problem caused by traffic emissions from vehicles in the surrounding areas.

Vehicles can emit nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon monoxide (CO), and other pollutants like particulate matter (PM2.5, PM10), all of which can negatively affect people’s health. For example, researchers have associated exposure to NO2, PM10, and PM2.5 with chronic bronchitis prevalence.

Other scientific sources have linked pollutants found in car pollution emissions to COPD incidence, blood oxygen delivery interference, and even hospitalization and mortality, as well as an increased risk among children to develop a disease in adulthood.

Obviously, not the kind of risks people imagine they’re being exposed to when visiting a big, green park – even one that’s located in the middle of a major metropolis.

Different Hours, Different Air Quality – Air Pollution in NYC is Dynamic!

Like many other metropolitan areas, New York’s air quality varies at different times of the day according to the different levels of pollution. Below you can find a video showing a color-coded air pollution heatmap of NYC’s prized Central Park region, demonstrating how air pollution can peak during the middle of the day and how air quality may improve later at night.

One of the things this video shows, however, is that just because car traffic is low inside the park, it doesn’t mean park-goers are in a bubble segregated from the rest of NYC’s air. The problem with air pollution is that it’s constantly on the move and can freely enter the park area from the surrounding roads and streets. There is no protective glass dome that prevents air quality in Manhattan from affecting Central Park’s air quality.

The dispersion of air pollution is complicated and is dependent on many factors such as weather, wind, surrounding topography, building heights, and more.

Car Pollution Solutions: How Does Air quality & Pollution In NYC Affect Park-Goers?

The decision to stop traffic inside Central Park was multidimensional and not simply an effort to create cleaner air for park visitors. For example, greatly reducing vehicle traffic made the park much safer for pedestrians and bikers. Even with a modest and enforced 20mph (32km/h) speed limit, there were, unfortunately, still accidents.

When the emission source is right next to a person, like the tailpipe of a car, exposure to harmful pollutants is inevitable. This said, eliminating or at least reducing car emissions in the park, thereby reducing traffic pollution, did remove the close proximity to emission sources for park-goers.

A Larger Problem – Air Quality in Manhattan 

When taking a broader look at air quality and pollution in NYC, we can see that air pollution from Central Park’s surrounding areas can still impact park visitors. While traffic restrictions can be seen as a step in the right direction, improving air quality in Central Park as a whole remains an ongoing challenge.

Air pollution can easily waft across city streets, and even make its way across entire continents and oceans. Closing a few streets in the middle of the city only has a moderately positive effect, as people on those streets remain exposed to the pollution in NYC from the surrounding areas.

No Cars Means Less Air Pollution? Not Necessarily

There are a few potential reasons why air pollution in Central Park can remain high despite limiting vehicle traffic through the park. Firstly, closing the park to cars increases traffic in nearby roads, ultimately increasing traffic jams and air pollution around the park.

(Read more about why fewer cars on the road doesn’t necessarily equal no pollution here)

Seasonal changes can also influence Central Park’s air quality, as shifts in climate and weather conditions can result in higher pollutant concentrations or introduce new environmental irritants, like pollen.

Because air pollution is mostly invisible, smart mobility brands like Cowboy leverage location-based environmental intelligence to help pedestrians and cyclists avoid areas with poor air quality and pollution in NYC and many other cities.

Central Park Air Quality: A Solution To Car Pollution Impact For Health & Fitness Companies

The invisibility of air pollution means that businesses focusing on optimizing health and fitness must integrate environmental data with their consumer offerings. Accurate air quality forecasts and heatmaps are extremely useful for making environmental hazards like air pollution in NYC visible to park goers and commuters.

In just this way, BreezoMeter’s environmental monitoring technology enables fitness and health apps to empower users with granular NYC air quality tracking right across Manhattan, the West Coast, the entire US, and beyond.

In addition, providing users with actionable location-based environmental insights that are personalized to their individual health requirements enables brands to add value to their digital offerings and cut down the health impact of pollution on adults and children alike.

Personalized environmental insights can enable users to:

  • Avoid prolonged stay in polluted areas at the most dangerous hours.
  • Optimize chronic disease management to prevent exacerbations.
  • Choose cleaner travel routes for safer journeys.
  • Enjoy outdoor exercise at the right time and place for maximal health benefits.

Central Park Air Quality: In Favor Of Pedestrians

Originally opened in the 1850s, Central Park’s roads were designed to prevent horse and carriage races on straight roadway segments. A lot has changed since then.

While Central Park visitors no longer have to contend with many cars while jogging or taking leisurely strolls, air pollution can still loom over Central Park’s idyllic settings and regions like it.

For this reason, air quality forecasts and live environmental data integrations are increasingly becoming must-have tools for health, fitness, and smart mobility brands seeking to educate consumers on their individual environmental exposure risks.

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Ran Korber

CEO & Co-founder at @BreezoMeter. My burning ambition is to improve the health and quality of life for billions of people across the globe by providing accurate and actionable air quality data. As co-founder and CEO at BreezoMeter, I'm proud to be able to work towards bringing my dream to fruition each day.