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San Diego Is Shrinking Carbon Footprint During Coronavirus Shutdown

This undated photo shows the Interstate 5 freeway.

Photo by Bill Morrow

Above: This undated photo shows the Interstate 5 freeway.

The COVID 19 pandemic shut down Southern California in mid-March, squeezing the life out of the region’s economy. But there may be a silver lining.

The pandemic response got people out of their cars.

Listen to this story by Erik Anderson.

The Southern California freeways are still there, they are just not jammed with cars.

“It’s a very dramatic decline,” said Gustavo Dallarda, the acting director for CalTrans District 11, which includes San Diego.

“During the year we have some seasonal drops in traffic when kids are off school and things like that," Dallarda said. “During the summer typically. But we haven’t seen anything to this magnitude.”

A critical freeway like Interstate 5 typically has hundreds of thousands of cars and trucks. During rush hour, traffic frequently slowed to a crawl. But not anymore.

“What you saw right after the stay-home order was issued about half of the traffic on any given day was traveling on I-5. Right now it’s about a third drop,” Dallarda said.

RELATED: With Few Fliers, San Diego Airport Struggling With Coronavirus Fallout

He wonders whether it will last as the state begins to ease social distancing restrictions and allows the economy to reignite.

“We need to see how society is really going to change as part of going back to what they call the new normal,” Dallarda said. “There’s a lot of people that are teleworking right now. We expect that there will be a lot of people teleworking after this as well and that may reduce some of the demand on the transportation system.”

Teleworking has been a huge revelation for climate advocates.

“The biggest driver of the climate crisis in the San Diego region is cars,” said Nicole Capretz, executive director of the Climate Action Campaign.

San Diego’s five-year-old Climate Action Plan requires the city to cut its carbon footprint in half by 2035.

Shrinking the city’s carbon output was always going to rely on getting people out of their cars.

“That’s always been a struggle to implement,” Capretz said. “And then suddenly overnight, because of the COVID crisis. We kind of see, wow, if we did actually find a solution to cars being on the road. We have clean air.”

RELATED: Gas Prices Down Sharply In San Diego As Coronavirus Restrictions Cut Demand

Teleworking, or working from home, was never a part of the carbon reduction equation.

The city’s plan focused on biking, walking, and mass transit.

Working from home was not widely accepted culturally. But when the shutdown hit, the unexpected happened and now teleworking could become a key strategy.

“We have to figure out a way to just transform our whole energy system,” Capretz said. “To transform just about everything about the way we live work and play. Again we’re sort of getting a peek at what that might look like. And hopefully, people will see that it could be a better quality of life.”

San Diego’s carbon emissions have already been trimmed by 21% since 2010, but the city’s chief sustainability officer, Cody Hooven, concedes the effort hinges on changing how people move around.

“We like to drive long distances on freeways and that’s the way our city is designed,” Hooven said. “So shifting that behavior and building up public transportation and bike accessibility, walking, pedestrian access so it’s safe and comfortable for people. It’s a pretty big lift.”

The quick pivot to teleworking was unexpected, but it gives city leaders something to think about as they give the Climate Action Plan its scheduled five-year update.

“What does a work from home scenario look like in the future?” Hooven asked. “What other things are changing. Now people are thinking about walking or biking more as a safe way to commute because they don’t have to be crowded with other people in a carpool or a van or a bus.”

She is curious to see which changes become permanent.

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Photo of Erik Anderson

Erik Anderson
Environment Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI focus on the environment and all the implications that a changing or challenging environment has for life in Southern California. That includes climate change, endangered species, habitat, urbanization, pollution and many other topics.

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