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Traffic volumes have returned to pre-pandemic levels all throughout the country, which is hence reportedly helping normalise gasoline consumption as well. As more businesses re-open, so does domestic leisure travel resumes and workers return to offices, making people go back to their usual driving commutes.
Nationally, traffic levels had been down 41% in Apr. 2020 at the height of the first wave of the pandemic. By Dec. 2020 during the second wave, it was still down 11%. In the Los Angeles metro area, traffic hovered around 80% of pre-pandemic levels since the end of June, according to data from traffic analytics company INRIX. By the last few weeks of Feb., traffic was nearly at 90% of pre-pandemic levels.
As social-distancing restrictions were relaxed and more service businesses and offices re-opened, car use increased further in Apr. and May. And more driving means more fuel consumption. The volume of gasoline supplied to the domestic market, a proxy for consumption, was down by just 4% at 8.9 million barrels per day in the four weeks to May 14, compared with the pre-pandemic five-year average of 9.3 million b/d. The remaining driving and fuel deficits will probably be erased over the next three months as more employees return to work at offices and domestic tourism recovers.
Driving more is not only a hindrance to traffic volumes, but also, and most importantly, to the environment. Despite COVID-induced drop in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) last year, it wasn’t enough to unseat transportation as the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. In order for the country to achieve climate targets, it must significantly reduce its use of cars altogether. Per an analysis done by the Rocky Mountain Institute, the U.S. transportation sector needs to reduce carbon emissions 43% by 2030 in order to align with 1.5oC climate goals.
Tackling the climate and air pollution crisis requires curbing all motorised transportation. Transport is one of the most challenging sectors to decarbonise, given its heavy fossil fuel use and reliance on carbon-intensive infrastructure like roads, airports, and the vehicles themselves. Not to mention how these all embed themselves in car-dependent lifestyles.
One key way to reduce transport emissions relatively quickly on a potentially global scale is to swap cars for bicycles, e-biking, and walking. Active travel is cheaper, healthier, better for the environment, and no slower on congested urban streets. New research showed that people who walk or cycle have lower carbon footprints from daily travel. And though some walking and cycling happen on top of motorised journeys instead of replacing them altogether, more people switching to active travel would equate to lower carbon emissions from transport on a daily and trip-by-trip basis.
Conducted in London, Antwerp, Barcelona, Vienna, Orebro, Rome, and Zurich in a span of two years, researchers found that people who cycled on a daily basis had 84% lower carbon emissions from all their daily travel than those who didn’t. Also revealed, the average person who shifted from car to bike for just one day a week cut their carbon footprint by seven pounds of CO₂ – equivalent to the emissions from driving a car for 6.2 miles. Moreover, when the researchers compared the life cycle of each travel mode, taking into account the carbon generated by making the vehicle, fuelling it, and disposing of it, they found that emissions from cycling can be more than 30 times lower for each trip than driving a fossil fuel car, and about 10 times lower than driving an electric one.