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Coronavirus lockdown is having surprisingly little impact on Atlanta air quality, stats show

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Unlike cities around the world, metro Atlanta’s skies haven't noticeably changed in a time of much less driving

Hardly any traffic on Atlanta’s Downtown Connector, with Georgia Tech buildings to the right and Midtown and downtown high-rises to the left.
Downtown rush-hour traffic one afternoon in March.
Josh Green, Curbed Atlanta

As Atlanta’s traditionally clogged and smog-spewing highway systems have been more scantily used during the coronavirus pandemic, another silver lining in these complex times seems to have emerged—at least for now.

Metro Atlanta fuel emissions have dropped in recent weeks, as state and local governments order citizens to shelter at home in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the disease carried by the novel coronavirus.

However, according to data from AirNow.gov, the air quality intown doesn’t seem to have become noticeably cleaner in recent weeks.

The Ozone levels measured this week, for instance, are comparable to those from Super Bowl weekend in 2019, when droves of football fans flocked to Atlanta for the showdown at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Stats show only a slight improvement over March 2 this year, too, possibly owing to changes in air temperature.

Additionally, the Air Quality Index from this time last year is rather similar, too.

Atlanta’s air quality is usually fairly clean as American metropolises go, per the government site, following the shuttering in recent years of coal-fired power plants and generally cleaner vehicles.

But as the New York Times points out in an analysis of traffic and pollution patterns in historically car-congested communities, cities like Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago are witnessing an uncharacteristic decline in air pollution.

Elsewhere, in cities such as India’s Delhi, rare reports of “good” air quality have followed coronavirus restrictions, as the Daily Mail points out.

Not surprisingly, a report by Google, based on cellphone data, suggests the promise of cleaner air in metro Atlanta is likely a result of major isolation efforts by residents—and therefore fleeting.

A chart shows mobility trends in Fulton County.
An analysis of recent, local mobility trends.
Google

In Fulton County, from February 16 to March 29, trips to retail and recreation destinations dropped 54 percent.

Visits to parks, transit stations, and workplaces dipped 44, 47, and 43 percent, respectively.

And travel to grocery stores and pharmacies—locations deemed crucial to so-called “essential activities”—declined 26 percent in the same timeframe.

Statewide, the numbers paint a slightly different picture.

From February 23 to April 5, trips for retail and recreation were down 50 percent, although travel to parks was down just 13 percent.

Trips to grocery stories and pharmacies, transit stations, and workplaces declined 22, 59, and 42 percent, respectively.

It’s unclear what lasting impact the drastic shift to working from home could have on the way metro Atlantans commute, but it’s safe to say the pandemic has helped proponents of teleworking make a case for the practice.