NYC Health Department: Traffic Is Poisoning Our Air

pmgrab.jpgEstimated fine particle concentrations in winter 2008-2009

In a first of its kind report for the city, the Department of Health has issued a wake-up call for New Yorkers of all stripes: Car and truck traffic is killing us, in more ways than one.

Collecting ground-level samples at 150 sites for a community air quality study conducted last winter [PDF], researchers measured for five pollutants emitted by vehicles and buildings. Among the findings: People in areas with higher traffic densities are subjected to higher levels of particulates (27 percent greater), elemental carbon (45 percent greater), and nitrogen dioxide (37 percent greater) than those in areas with less traffic. In addition to triggering allergies and other illnesses that lead to more hospitalizations and work absences, exposure to these toxins has been linked to heart diseases, lung diseases, and cancer.

While the effects on Midtown Manhattan and the Upper East Side make for compelling headlines, neighborhoods that get far less media play but are nonetheless saddled with crushing cut-through traffic, highway traffic and truck traffic, like Washington Heights and Hunts Point, are also hit hard.

"It confirms what we’ve known anecdotally," says Miquela Craytor of Sustainable South Bronx. In addition to regional traffic on the Bruckner Expressway, tens of thousands of trucks travel to and from Hunts Point weekly. Local residents, for the most part, are collateral damage. "The majority of folks in the Bronx aren’t driving to go to work in Manhattan."

Sustainable South Bronx is a member of the COMMUTE coalition, steadfast advocates for congestion pricing and BRT. "Things such as congestion pricing are a great tool that can lead to some behavioral changes that are necessary," Craytor says. "The other thing that certainly needs to happen is that we invest in our transit system. The Bronx still is underserved in many areas."

Yet local and state officials have left the MTA to wither, with the worst possibly to come. Despite the costs imposed by automobile use on the city’s economic and physical health, measures like pricing and bridge tolls, which would raise money for public transportation while reducing private vehicle traffic and its attendant pollution, are considered political non-starters. At least for now.

  • Another reason to stop letting idling laws go unenforced, for both attended vehicles and unattended ones.

    I’ve often suggested that Council Member Garodnick’s (dormant?) bill 881, which would enable TEAs to ticket for idling is exactly what would finally get the job done. All motorists know that cops don’t write a lot of tickets, but TEAs pounce. Maybe in light of this report, Garodnick stop waiting to see if TEAs are given the job without his bill. (if that’s what’s going on–I understand that that’s what it is).

  • Larry Littlefield

    Here’s the irony. How would that map match up with a map of auto usage by local residents?

    The neighborhoods where residents contribute least to motor vehicle related air pollution are those which suffer the most pollution from drivers coming from elsewhere.

    I’ll bet someone will make the point that everyone should drive to improve their health based on that map. Here would be the low pollution model:

  • James

    Oddly enough, looks to me like uber-car depdendent Staten Island has the best air in the five boroughs. Southern Brooklyn and eastern Queens, also relatively car-dependent, aren’t far behind. What this tells me is that the level of truck traffic alone is the determining factor here, rather than car traffic plus truck traffic.

  • I imagine that the yellowest rectangle in Manhattan is Central Park, and that slightly darker blotch in the middle of that portion is the 72nd Street transverse.

  • Doug

    Density is also a factor. Staten Island may be more car-dependent than most of the rest of NYC, but much of it is more spread out. The same could be said of the parts of Brooklyn and Queens that look more like suburbs than city. That’s not to minimize the effects of car-dependency in those areas, of course.

    The Bronx also has just about everyone from Westchester to Canada driving through it to get to Manhattan. That makes a huge difference. Craytor is right; this is a huge injustice to the residents of the Bronx, most of whom don’t drive to Manhattan or anywhere for that matter.

  • Veritas

    In Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, you can actually the expressways show up as dark red. I can definitely see the Gowanus, BQE, Prospect Expressway, Clearview, LIE, Van Wyck, Grand Central Parkway, New England Thruway, and the Cross-Bronx Expressway on that map.

  • Josh

    How wonderful that an unnecessary arena is being built right in the patch that’s already got the worst air in Brooklyn.

  • rlb

    “I can definitely see the Gowanus, BQE, Prospect Expressway, Clearview, LIE, Van Wyck, Grand Central Parkway, New England Thruway, and the Cross-Bronx Expressway on that map.”

    That’s some pretty impressive resolution for only having 150 data points – to impressive. I think they just darkened areas where there are freeways. I’m sure it’s to a certain extent true.
    Looking at the map, you can sort of see where the data points are. Then they must have a gradient algorithm to connect them all.
    It looks to me like it fails in the southern tip of the bronx. The data point seems to be north of 138th st. Whereas just across from Manhattan near Bruckner blvd you have the Deegan, the third and willis avenue bridges and the freakin’ triboro. That area should almost certainly be dark red

  • Boris

    Tolled bridges, which see almost no idling, and mostly non-truck bridges, which the Willis and Third Ave bridges must be (because they connect to the non-truck FDR Drive), have the least pollution. Comparing the truck-heavy BQE and the truck-free Belt Parkway in Brooklyn confirms the trucks=pollution theory as well.

  • LN

    No wonder I have asthma — I live near the GWB — smack dab in the middle of the darkest spot on the map!

  • Albert


    You’re eagle-eyed. And the darker area just north of Central Park is undoubtedly where cars from NJ & elsewhere funnel in to take advantage of the free speedway down the Central Park Loop. If the loop were made completely off-limits to regular car traffic, those cars would spew their asthma-causing pollution on the FDR and the Henry Hudson and keep it out of the neighborhoods north of the park.

  • Albert

    P.S. to mcsladek:

    The 72nd Street cut-through is not (and never was) a transverse. It’s just another gift to drivers long after the park was designed. It looks to me like the darkness encroaching around the perimeter of the park follows the loop (and the 72nd Street cut-through, which is part of the loop) perfectly. Even the transverses don’t seem to show up, which makes sense, since they were designed for traffic, and are below ground level for that purpose.

  • The Dynamic Mumeshantz

    Allowing cars to drive uncharged into Manhattan is equivalent to allowing fare beaters to ride the NYC subway system for free.

  • dynamic mumeschantz – right on!

  • Dan Icolari

    The reason Staten Island looks so clean compared to the other boroughs is a matter of population density. Add another million or so to the half million already here and the Staten Island portion of the map would get a lot browner.

    I live smack in the middle of that dark brown spot, St. George, at the northeast corner of the island. It’s the most walkable neighborhood in the borough, where fewer residents depend on private cars to get around. It’s also the neighborhood where commuters from other parts of the island park their cars and catch the ferry. This, in a neighborhood that is the island’s civic and transportation hub–the ultimate destination of our entire bus system and SIR, the island’s one rail line.

    The only way to get people out of their cars is to MAKE MASS TRANSIT FREE. Which means, socialize the cost and pay for it through our taxes. Retire the anachronistic fare structure, distribute the cost fairly, and watch the air quality improve.

    Dan Icolari
    St. George, Staten Island

  • Dan Icolari: “The only way to get people out of their cars is to MAKE MASS TRANSIT FREE.”

    There’s another way. Make driving expensive. Peak oil will do that eventually.

    (I enjoy your Walking Is Transportation blog.)

  • I def think the city has made an improvement in cutting back on pollution but there’s so much more that needs to be done.

    One of the things Mayor Bloomberg has done was creating more bike lanes to encourage more people to bike in. It’s not enough though which is why congestion pricing would really ease the pollution in NYC


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