Is Bay Area Traffic Impacting Your Health? Here’s What the Science Says

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – Living in the Bay Area comes with its unique set of challenges, and one of the most pressing is the impact of traffic on health.

Scientific studies have been shedding light on this issue, and the findings are significant, and often quite worrisome. Traffic isn’t just a nuisance–it’s bad for your health, and impacts minority communities unequally.

Let’s delve into what the research reveals about the health implications of the Bay Area’s notorious traffic.

Bay Area traffic jam
Bay Area traffic jam

Air Pollution and Its Deadly Toll

A pivotal analysis highlighted the severe impact of air pollution, particularly particle pollution (soot), in the Bay Area.

This pollution is largely attributed to traffic and has resulted in more than 3,000 deaths and 5,500 new childhood asthma cases annually (source). This underlines the direct correlation between traffic-induced air pollution and serious health issues.

Unequal Impact Across Communities

Further research by the Environmental Defense Fund and George Washington University emphasized the enormous and uneven toll of air pollution on health across different neighborhoods in the San Francisco Bay Area (source).

This indicates that the health impact of traffic pollution is not uniformly distributed, with some communities bearing a heavier burden than others.

Bay Area traffic jam
Bay Area traffic jam

Impact on Pregnancy and Children’s Respiratory Health

Research conducted at the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) focused on the relationship between residential traffic exposure and the risk of miscarriage among pregnant women in California.

OEHHA’s research found that “studies have linked proximity to busy roads to a variety of adverse health outcomes in both adults and children, including respiratory symptoms, asthma attacks, decreases in lung function, heart attacks, and low birth weight.”

Additionally, the East Bay Children’s Respiratory Health study explored respiratory symptoms among children attending schools situated near major freeways (source). These studies underscore the broader scope of health risks, affecting both unborn children and school-going kids.

Large number of cars and a school bus in a Bay Area parking lot
Large number of cars and a school bus in a Bay Area parking lot

Environmental Changes from Reduced Traffic

During the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders, a significant reduction in vehicle traffic in the Bay Area led to notable changes in air quality and even altered the physical properties of roads and parking lot surfaces due to the decrease in vehicle emissions and the absence of densely grouped vehicles.

One study found that “large parking lots, roadway corridors, and industrial/commercial rooftops across the entire Bay Area urban landscape were detected by Landsat ST time series as significantly cooler (by 5o C to 8o C) during the unprecedented Shelter-in-Place period of mid-March to late-May of 2020, compared to same months of the three previous years.”

In other words, reducing the number of vehicles on the road cooled the region so substantially that the effects were visible from space!

In conclusion, the scientific evidence is clear: traffic in the Bay Area is having a significant impact on health, ranging from increased deaths and asthma cases to specific risks for pregnant women and children.

The data also points towards the potential health benefits that could be realized through efforts to reduce traffic-related pollution. It’s a call to action for both policymakers and individuals to consider the profound implications of traffic on public health and work towards mitigating these risks.

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Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is a food and travel photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographic work routinely appears in publications including Food and Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and the New York Times and his writing appears in IEEE Spectrum, SFGate, the Bold Italic and more. Smith holds a degree in Cognitive Science (Neuroscience) and Anthropology from the Johns Hopkins University.

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