Impacts of the COVID-19 responses on traffic-related air pollution in a Northwestern US city

Jianbang Xiang, Elena Austin, Timothy Gould, Timothy Larson, Jeffry Shirai, Yisi Liu, Julian Marshall, Edmund Seto

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

97 Scopus citations


This study evaluates the COVID-19 impacts on traffic-related air pollution, including ultrafine particles (UFPs), PM2.5, black carbon (BC), NO, NO2, NOx, and CO in a Northwestern US city. Hourly traffic, air pollutants, and meteorological data on/near a major freeway in the downtown of Seattle, Washington, were collected for five weeks before and ten weeks after the Washington Stay Home Order (SHO) was enacted, respectively (February 17–May 31, 2020). The pollutants between pre- and post-SHO periods were compared, and their differences were statistically tested. Besides, first-order multivariate autoregressive (MAR(1)) models were developed to reveal the impacts specific to the change of traffic due to the COVID-19 responses while controlling for meteorological conditions. Results indicate that compared with those in the post-SHO period, the median traffic volume and road occupancy decreased by 37% and 52%, respectively. As for pollutants, the median BC and PM2.5 levels significantly decreased by 25% and 33%, relatively, while NO, NO2, NOx, and CO decreased by 33%, 29%, 30%, and 17%, respectively. In contrast, neither size-resolved UFPs nor total UFPs showed significant changes between the two periods, although larger particles (≥115.5 nm) decreased by 4–29%. Additionally, significant differences were found in meteorological conditions between the two periods. Based on the MAR(1) models, controlling for meteorological conditions, the COVID-19 responses were associated with significant decreases in median levels of traffic-related pollutants including 11.5–154.0 nm particles (ranging from −3% [95% confidence interval (CI): −1%, −4%] to −12% [95% CI: −10%, −14%]), total UFPs (−7% [95% CI: −5%, −8%]), BC (−6% [95% CI: −5%, −7%]), PM2.5 (−2% [95% CI: −1%, −3%]), NO, NO2, NOx (ranging from −3% [95% CI: −2%, −4%] to −10% [95% CI: −18%, −12%]), and CO (−4% [95% CI, −3%, −5%]). These findings illustrate that the conclusion of the COVID-19 impacts on urban traffic-related air pollutant levels could be completely different in scenarios whether meteorology was adjusted for or not. Fully adjusting for meteorology, this study shows that the COVID-19 responses were associated with much more reductions in traffic-related UFPs than PM2.5 in the Seattle region, in contrast to the reverse trend from the direct empirical data comparison.

Original languageEnglish
Article number141325
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - Dec 10 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Elsevier B.V.


  • Air pollution
  • COVID-19
  • Meteorology
  • PM
  • Traffic
  • Ultrafine particle (UFP)

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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