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Clear the Air by . . . Driving?

At least by driving smarter.

Hear us out: You’ve heard that a big chunk– roughly 50 percent — of Salt Lake City’s winter air pollution comes from motor vehicles.

That’s why SLCgreen promotes cleaner transportation and getting out of our cars as much as possible, particularly during February and the Clear the Air Challenge.

But, we know that taking public transit, biking, or purchasing an electric vehicle is not practical for everyone – yet! However, there are some important ways to reduce pollution even when you do drive.

We all want to take better care of our health and live in a healthy world and by planning ahead we can help our city have fewer red air days! Here’s how:

Avoid Cold Starts. Cold starts occur when we start our vehicles after they have been resting long enough for the engine to get cold.

Did you know? A majority of the air pollutants used across an entire journey are emitted in the first few minutes after you start your car.

A study from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality “found that 75 percent of combined pollutants and emissions are emitted from a car during the first three minutes after a cold start,” as described in a UCAIR’s blog post and video below.   

WOW! That is a lot of pollution. (Note that this references the emissions that cause localized air pollution- VOCs, NOx, and SOx–not the overall carbon emissions that warm the climate.)

By putting a little thought into how and when we start our cars, therefore, we can reduce a significant amount of air pollution:

  • Plan who parks where. One of the most common reasons for needless cold starts is the order the cars are parked in the driveway. So plan who is going to park where the night before based on who leaves first in the morning.  Or reduce the number of cold starts by trading cars instead of rearranging them in the driveway.
  • Run errands together instead of spreading them out (this is why the “trip-chaining” mode is part of the Clear the Air Challenge)
  • Pick friends up and carpool to the gym or dinner or skiing, rather than arranging to all drive separately. That’s multiple cold starts you’ve collectively avoided!
  • If possible, aim to walk, bike, or carpool to a transit stop rather than driving there. You just avoided the cold start and had a car-free day!

Create new opportunities and leave the car at home. When an inversion is setting up, make plans with friends and family that combine trips and incorporate exercise– perhaps by walking or biking somewhere.

Be idle free. If driving less is not an option, make a positive impact by committing to be idle free. This means not idling your vehicle too long to warm it up in the mornings and turning our car off while waiting in parking lots. New cars consume roughly the same amount of gas in 10 seconds of idling as it takes to re-start the engine.

So by turning the engine off, you’ll save money and improve air quality. This is why Salt Lake City was one of the first cities in Utah to pass an anti-idling ordinance nearly a decade ago! Of course, never turn off your vehicle if you are stopped in traffic or at an intersection for safety reasons.

Research indicates that the average person idles their car five to ten minutes a day. Let’s push this number down by turning the key when picking kids up from school, while waiting for friends, or while waiting in line at the drive-thru. In fact, the best option for better air quality is skipping the drive-through window altogether and going inside to order food.

The amount of time spent in a shop or restaurant typically doesn’t allow an engine to cool enough to create another cold start.

If you see your neighbors idling we encourage you to reach out and have a conversation about the clean air ordinance. Education is a vital part of being an idle-free city. Here is more information about Salt Lake City’s Idle Free Ordinance.

Keep tires inflated to a proper air pressure. Low tires reduce your driving efficiency and leads to greater use of gas. So make sure to get them checked and inflate them to their proper pressure. This is especially important in the winter when tires naturally lose some of their pressure due to low temperatures.

Drive slower and accelerate slowly. Hard stopping and starting is responsible for approximately 40% of fuel use in a vehicle. Efficiency also drops off significantly at speeds faster than 60 mph. This means you’re putting out measurably higher pollutants and carbon emissions, which can be avoided with some simple habit changes.

We hope this article provided some helpful and impactful tips for how you can clear the air– even while driving! Together, small decisions add up to a much bigger improvement to our air quality and health.

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