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Air Quality Alerts Don't Slow Drivers 

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Richmonders are road hogs.

People in the area drive more miles and pollute the air more, per capita, than motorists in any other Virginia city. And this summer, they didn't let air quality alerts slow them down.

This year, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality measured bad air on nine days in the metropolitan area. These are the hot, muggy days when air quality fails to meet federal health standards because ozone concentrations exceed 75 parts per billion.

Despite highway signs and television alerts exhorting Richmonders to take the bus or car pool, there was no significant increase — “less than 1 percent difference” — in use of mass transit on those days, says Joan M. Straszewski, spokeswoman for the GRTC Transit System.

Nor did people drive much less, it seems. Virginia Department of Transportation traffic engineer Dave Dreis took a look at traffic on Interstate 64 in Henrico and Interstate 95 north of Richmond on the three most recent bad air days: Aug. 30 through Sept. 1. Compared to days when there were no air quality alerts, traffic decreased by 0.5 percent on I-64 and 5.9 percent on I-95.

Trip Pollard, senior lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center, says it's understandable if Richmonders don't alter their hard-driving habits just because of an electronic sign telling them to car pool: “You see the sign on the highway. You're already on the highway. It's a little late.”

The bigger question: “Is there anything you could do if you wanted to change your behavior?” Pollard asks. Limited mass-transit options make it hard for Richmonders who want to drive less, he says.

Each person in the Richmond area drives 28.2 miles per day, on average, according to a 2008 study. That's more than residents of Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia, where the average person drives about 24 miles per day. VDOT's 2009 numbers show that people in Richmond and the surrounding counties collectively drive 25.2 million miles daily. That's the distance from the Earth to the sun, or about 90 million miles, every three-and-a-half days.

“We know that transportation contributes significantly to bad air days in the region,” says DEQ meteorologist Dan Salkovitz. Nine days of bad air isn't that many, compared to the annual average of 17 from 2005 to 2009. But “we're certainly seeing enough to show that we have a continuing problem here,” Pollard says. Richmond might see more days classified as exceedence days in the future, as the federal Environmental Protection Agency currently is working to put more stringent regulations in place.

Richmond has probably seen its last bad air day for the year; high ozone levels usually occur from May through September.

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