Diverting diesel trucks spared lungs in Sao Paulo

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A beltway that diverts heavy-duty diesel vehicles in the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo has reduced public health damage associated with exposure to diesel emissions.

The positive health outcomes of the intervention could guide the formulation of similar transport polices in other cities.

In densely populated cities like Sao Paulo, many vehicles running on diesel such as commercial trucks, vans, and buses circulate right by where people live, causing constant exposure to high levels of diesel emissions. The fuel emits highly pollutive particulate matter and nitrogen oxides that increase the risk of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, among other illnesses.

“Other world megacities such as London, Paris, New Delhi, and Singapore may stand to gain similarly by limiting the circulation of diesel vehicles in the cities…”

In 2010, Sao Paulo constructed a beltway along sparsely populated areas that are about 15 miles away from the city center. The original intent of building the beltway was to enable heavy-duty vehicles to bypass the densely populated neighborhoods, and thereby ease traffic congestion in the inner-city roads.

While the intervention did immediately relieve road congestion by 20 percent, researchers from the National University of Singapore found that the effect was short-lived, as passenger cars quickly replaced the inner-city road space which the heavy-duty vehicles had left behind.

However, the researchers also found that the replacement of heavy-duty diesel vehicles with gasoline-ethanol passenger cars on the inner-city roads resulted in a sustained drop in the level of nitrogen oxides in the air, reducing air pollution in the city even after the traffic congestion rebounded.

The improved air quality in Sao Paulo also translated into long-lasting positive health outcomes for its residents. The researchers observed that the compositional change in traffic in the inner-city roads resulting from the beltway’s diversion of diesel vehicles led to an overall estimated reduction of 5,000 hospital admissions associated with respiratory and cardiovascular illness every year. The researchers quantify about one annual premature death for every 100-200 diesel trucks using inner-city roads.

“The unintentional improvement in air quality and public health resulting from the Sao Paulo beltway demonstrates how judicious transport policies can benefit public health,” says study leader Alberto Salvo, associate professor in the economics department at NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

“Other world megacities such as London, Paris, New Delhi, and Singapore may stand to gain similarly by limiting the circulation of diesel vehicles in the cities, particularly during the day when people are out and about.”

Nearly 40 percent of London’s total nitrogen oxides emissions are attributed to diesel vehicles. Relative to North America, Europe’s households have significantly adopted diesel cars over gasoline and alternative fuels.

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Different cities may adopt different abatement strategies, such as the Ultra-Low Emission Zone charge in London and the temporary ban on diesel cars in Oslo, and thus it is crucial that policymakers evaluate a range of policies in order to select a combination of strategies most effective for their cities.

Sao Paulo’s beltway construction provides a rare intervention, at the scale of a real-world metropolis, of the air and health benefits from shifting the urban transportation fuel mix away from diesel. Policymakers in other cities where human exposure to diesel runs high may learn from Sao Paulo’s experience.

The study appears in the Journal of the European Economic Association. Coauthors are from NUS and the University of Sao Paulo.

Source: National University of Singapore