TRAX air quality study expands

This article, originally published in @theu, February 26, 2020, was written by Paul Gabrielsen, Science Writer, University of Utah Communications

For more than five years, University of Utah air quality sensors have hitched rides on TRAX light rail trains, scanning air pollution along the train’s Red and Green Lines. Now the study, once a passion project of U researchers, has become a state-funded long-term observatory, with an additional sensor on the Blue Line into Sandy and Draper and additional insights into the events that impact the Salt Lake Valley’s air, including summer fireworks and winter inversions.

In a new study published in Urban Science, researchers including Daniel Mendoza and Logan Mitchell report the latest from the TRAX Observation Project, including data validation studies that bolster the data’s value for other researchers and three case studies from recent events showcasing the abilities of the mobile air quality sensors.

What’s new: Blue Line and data validation

UTA’s TRAX system consists of three light rail lines: red, green and blue. Up until November 2019, U sensors measuring ozone and particulate matter were installed only on the Red and Green Line trains, because both lines used the same train cars. These two lines travel through downtown Salt Lake City, the central I-15 corridor and the valley’s west side. With an additional sensor on the Blue Line, however, air quality measurements now extend into the Salt Lake Valley’s southeastern quadrant.

“That’s a really important area of the valley,” Mitchell says. “There’s a lot of people down there.” The Blue Line also goes up and down in elevation, just as the Red Line does as it ascends from downtown Salt Lake City to the U campus. “Since elevation is such a key part of the air quality and understanding the depth of the inversion on different days, under different conditions,” he says, “it’s going to be a really important piece of the dataset for us.”

Extending into the south valley also allows researchers to learn more about how air masses move back and forth between Salt Lake and Utah counties, through the narrow Point of the Mountain passage.

“That’s actually really critical because we sometimes have very different meteorological phenomenon going on between the two valleys,” Mendoza says. “We can now examine in our basin an exchange of air masses.”

The other major development in the TRAX Observation Project is the validation of the data coming from the mobile sensors. This is an important step in a pioneering project such as this, and serves along with quality assurance and quality control protocols as a certificate on the archived data now being made available to other researchers. It also assuages any concerns that the air turbulence caused by the moving train might skew the readings.

The experiment involved a stationary particulate matter sensor placed about 10 feet (3 m) from the rail line that would take readings whenever the TRAX trains were within 500 feet (150 m) of the sensors. Comparing the mobile and stationary readings, Mendoza says, showed 96% accuracy. “That really gives us a great deal of confidence that our TRAX sensors are actually performing really well compared to regulatory sensors and can be used for health studies, policy and so on,” Mendoza says.

Watching the fireworks

With five years of continued observations, the TRAX Observation Project has captured many air quality events. Mendoza, Mitchell and their colleagues document three particular events in their paper: an elevated ozone event from August 2019, a cold air pool inversion event in November 2019 and the fireworks on July 4, 2019.

The fireworks event was unique—it wasn’t a phenomenon caused by an atmospheric event or by the geography of the Salt Lake Valley. It was an incidence of multiple point sources of particulate matter air pollution, allowing observation of how those plumes of particulate matter moved through the valley.

Following generally good air quality, hotspots of elevated pollution started appearing in the TRAX data between 10-11 p.m. on Independence Day. By midnight, the majority of the valley was experiencing moderate to unhealthy air quality.

Mendoza says that the train data shows not only the dispersion of the smoke—something you don’t see in wintertime inversions, which have low atmospheric energy—but also the evening winds coming down Emigration Canyon on the valley’s east side, which washes out some of the air pollution.

“These are examples of the kinds of things that we’re seeing that you couldn’t see with stationary monitors,” Mitchell adds. “It’s helping us understand where the gradients are in the valley, how they evolve through pollution events such as during the Fourth of July or an inversion or an ozone event. You can see the air masses moving around. You can see where the pollution is and how it moves from different parts of the valley.”

Next steps

Next, Mitchell says, the team hopes to add sensors that measure oxides of nitrogen and carbon monoxide, both important components of atmospheric chemistry. They’d also like to expand the study to light rail trains in cities such as Portland or Denver.

“It would be really interesting for us to be able to compare the spatial patterns we’re seeing here with another city that has different topography around it and a different mix of emission sources,” Mitchell says, “so that we can understand how cities, in general, are being affected by these things and how that’s similar or different from what’s going on in Salt Lake City.”

Find the full study here.

Media Contacts

Logan Mitchell | research assistant professor, Department of Atmospheric Sciences

Daniel Mendoza | research assistant professor, Department of Atmospheric Sciences; pulmonary fellow, Division of Pulmonary Medicine, School of Medicine
Office: 801-585-6861 | Mobile: 801-505-8253 | 

Paul Gabrielsen | research/science communications specialist, University of Utah Communications
Office: 801-585-6861 | Mobile: 801-505-8253 | 

Clear the Air Challenge update

This article, originally published in @theu, February 19, 2020, was written by Ayrel Clark-Proffitt, Sustainability Office

We all benefit when the air is clean. That’s the idea behind the statewide Clear the Air Challenge. Every February the University of Utah launches a team as part of a month-long effort to get people out of single-occupant vehicles, which are significant contributors to our air pollution problems.

The U team has hundreds of people logging their sustainable commutes on the TravelWise Tracker. (Psst … It’s not too late to sign up for the U team and log your trips back to Feb. 1.) As of writing this article, the University of Utah team is in first place, though Fidelity Investments, a perennially strong team and defending champs, is right on our heels.

When I look through all the trips we’ve logged this month, I see a few patterns:

Everything is better together

The Clear the Air Challenge winner is judged on CO2 savings, and right now traveling together is getting it done for the University of Utah team. As of Feb. 19, more than three-quarters of the CO2 saved by the U team came from choosing public transit or carpooling over driving alone. Members of the university community can all ride UTA FrontRunner, TRAX and buses by tapping on and off with their UCards. For those that struggle to access public transit, carpooling is a fantastic option. Research Park Connect has done a great job helping its team find carpool and vanpool options.

Health commuters are making a difference

The University of Utah might be in first place, but we wouldn’t be without the efforts of University of Utah Health. The U of U Health commuter team is in third place overall in the challenge. The team is literally breathing new life into the university’s efforts—90% of people signed up for the team are participating in their first Clear the Air Challenge, based on the dates their profiles were created.

It is OK to try new things

We get into habits, we create routines. Often, those are hard to break. Andy Lambert, a graduate student in atmospheric sciences, realized he was on autopilot when it came to his commute, and he made a choice to try out public transit for the first time. He was surprised to find the experience more enjoyable than he expected.

“Normally, my morning routine includes roughly 30 minutes of news and social media time before I can actually leave the house. But with public transit, that 30 minutes can just be moved to time on the bus. How’s that for convenience and efficiency?” Lambert said.

If you are a regular user of sustainable transportation, talk to your friends about it. If you get your pals on public transit, don’t forget to post a photo on Instagram with #CommuteCompanion and tag @SustainableUofU to be entered to win a free gift sponsored by Cotopaxi.

Together, we can make a difference.

Throughout February, take action on air quality by tracking your sustainable commute behaviors with the Clear the Air Challenge, a statewide competition that aims to reduce emissions from vehicles by promoting alternative transit options. Join the U team at travelwisetracker.com/s/university-of-utah. Log trips retroactively back to Feb. 1.

UTA on Demand by Via

This article, originally published in @theu, February 11, 2020, was written by Claudia TrochezCommuter Services

Thanks to UTA’s Ed-Pass, students, faculty and staff can ride the bus, TRAX and FrontRunner for no additional fee, making public transit the obvious choice for commuting to campus. Depending on where you live exactly, UTA service can either be an invaluable resource or a not-so-convenient option that doesn’t work well with your schedule.

For residents in southern Salt Lake County where UTA service is less abundant, accessing public transit is more challenging. To help bridge the gap, UTA launched its microtransit pilot program, UTA on Demand by Viawhich intends to enhance connectivity to TRAX and FrontRunner lines for commuters in the southern part of the valley by providing on demand rides to and from TRAX stations.

What is UTA on Demand by Via? 

UTA’s microtransit pilot program serves about 65 square miles in southern Salt Lake County, serving the cities of Bluffdale, Draper, Herriman, Riverton and South Jordan. The service area includes seven TRAX and FrontRunner stations with designated pickup and drop off locations, making connections to campus more accessible than ever.

Via’s technology matches multiple riders headed in a similar direction into a single van, with quick and efficient routing, avoiding lengthy detours. After requesting a ride, the app will display the pickup location where the vehicle will meet you. Via is a corner-to-corner service, meaning riders will be picked up and dropped off close to their destination.

How does it work? 

Riders may hail a van by using the Via app, available on the App Store and Google Play. The microtransit service operates Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. and is available to students, faculty and staff at no additional fee. University affiliates with a valid uNID should use their Ed-Pass, in lieu of paying fare, by hitting the ‘UTA Pass/Ticket/Transfer’ when signing up.

ADA riders may request an accessible van by selecting ‘wheelchair accessibility’ in their profile.

For example, if you live in Draper and work on campus, you can get a lift to the Draper Town Center or Kimball Lane TRAX stations by requesting a UTA on Demand ride through the Via app. At the end of the day, you can be picked up at the TRAX station and return to where you started near your home, the grocery store or anywhere within the service area (see map below) for no charge. The service will also be useful for patients traveling to and from the South Jordan Health Center.

Why should I ride UTA? 

A perk of the U community, all current students, faculty and staff members may ride UTA services, including the microtransit program, without paying fare. Choosing UTA over driving allows you to save money on car-related expenses including gas, maintenance and parking permits.

In addition to saving some green, you can also be green by choosing UTA over driving. Salt Lake City’s poor air quality is undeniable during inversion season. According to a recent study, “at least 85% of harmful emissions come from fossil fuel,” meaning the CO2 produced by cars is the lead contributor to the air quality problem Utahans face. Riding UTA will continually help reduce emissions and help keep our air clean.

Driving to the university campus from southern Salt Lake County may take anywhere from 30 to 80 minutes or more, depending on traffic and weather. While riding UTA will not likely decrease your commute time, it will certainly ease its difficulties and be safer, too. You’ll be able to start your workday sooner, catch up on emails, read or watch Netflix, instead of sitting behind the wheel in traffic or on icy, dangerous roads.

Share your thoughts

UTA on Demand by Via is a pilot program and UTA wants to hear from you. Take this survey to share your thoughts and help UTA study effective ‘first-and-last mile’ connections to our bus and rail services.

For more information on UTA on Demand by Via and all other services, visit call 801-RIDE-UTA.

Converting my commute

This article, originally published in @theu, February 11, 2020, was written by Andy Lambert, MA Student, Atmospheric Sciences

As a graduate student in Atmospheric Sciences, many of my discussions and much of my research fall under the umbrella of air quality and climate. Conversations with colleagues and others inevitably turn to the topic of driving improvement within these realms, whether that’s collectively or individually. And yet, after almost six years as a student at the University of Utah, I had not commuted from my home in Bountiful by any other means than a personal vehicle.

Of course, through my education, I’ve come to understand quite deeply the sources of pollution and its hazardous health effects. But there were a number of things preventing me from actually commuting in a cleaner way: My trip from home to campus was already quite long and frustrating, and public transportation seemed like it might make both of those things worse. There didn’t seem to be any reliable options for public transit from where I live in Bountiful. Finally, could I really count on public transit when getting to or coming from work/school was time-sensitive?

Three weeks ago, through a combination of personal climate guilt, impactful discussion with colleagues in a climate change communication course, and invitations from a number of peers, I decided to finally test out the public transit system on my commute.

It was scary. I mapped out my trip on several web applications the night prior for fear of not being prepared or getting lost and eventually decided to just go with Google Maps. Then I grew even more indecisive when it came to picking the best route. “Do I walk 7 minutes this way and take the 470?” “No, maybe I should walk 9 minutes the other way and take the 455.” “Oh wait, but then I would have two bus changes to make for that route.” All of it was a little overwhelming for someone who had never done this before. Eventually, I just picked the one that took the shortest amount of time. Turns out, it was a good choice.

The morning arrived and it came time to head out. It felt weird leaving the house with my backpack and walking through a neighborhood to go to work instead of getting in my car. But it went quickly, and the bus was right on time. I got on, sat down, opened up the New York Times on my phone, and read the news. Then it hit me. “This is actually pretty nice!” Normally, my morning routine includes roughly 30 minutes of news and social media time before I can actually leave the house. But with public transit, that 30 minutes can just be moved to time on the bus. How’s that for convenience and efficiency? To make things even better, the whole trip only took 45 minutes. I’m cheap and normally park far away from my building because it’s free, so the trip using public transit was actually faster than my normal commute!

Now, the trip home took a bit longer because of heavy traffic, but it still wasn’t bad. Besides, I was able to enjoy some social media and gaming time on my phone on the way. Since then, using public transportation for my commute has not become a daily habit, but it does remain a surprisingly convenient and efficient way to travel that I will continue to utilize. For anyone who has the same concerns and roadblocks I did regarding commuting via public transportation, I say give it a try. Like me, you may be surprised by how silly those concerns actually were! And now, as I continue my research and conversations with others in the realm of air quality and climate, I do feel a little bit better about myself and a great deal more motivated to find other ways to contribute to solutions toward these important local and global issues.

Throughout February, consider a car free commute. Take action on air quality by tracking your commute behaviors with the Clear the Air Challenge, a statewide competition that aims to reduce emissions from vehicles by promoting alternative transit options. Join the U team at travelwisetracker.com/s/university-of-utah.

Confronting Climate Change

By Kate Whitbeck, communications and relationship manager, Sustainability Office

What if climate change wasn’t a terrifying specter threatening our future? What if it were an opportunity—an opportunity for research, investment and growth? An opportunity to right wrongs and restore balance? An opportunity to build stronger partnerships and collaboration and, through them, healthier robust communities able to withstand change?

As a tier-one research institution with a world-class health center, the University of Utah is uniquely positioned to take advantage of this opportunity and develop new approaches to cross-cutting interdisciplinary research addressing climate change.

This has been a year of bold action for the university in establishing its position as a leader in the climate change movement and embracing the opportunity.

In April 2019, U President Ruth V. Watkins signed the Presidents’ Climate Leadership Commitments renewing the university’s commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050 and placing the institution on a path toward resilience and adaptation. That same month the university joined the University Climate Change Coalition, a group of 20 leading North American research universities—including University of California; University of Colorado, Boulder; University of Michigan; and others—that have committed to mobilizing their resources and expertise to accelerate local and regional climate action in partnership with businesses, cities and states, foundations and other organizations.

“We understand the important role higher education plays in building a sustainable society. As a public research university, we are committed to generating new knowledge in areas relating to sustainability, and to implementing best practices in university operations,” Watkins said. “This work highlights the interconnections between humans and the environment and allows us to address the urgent sustainability challenges of our time. We look forward to working with other leading institutions across North America to build critical momentum to affect change on a national and global level.”

A combination of factors spurred these actions. In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report urging institutions and countries around the world to reduce their carbon emissions by at least 45% of the 2010 level by 2030 and to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by no later than 2050 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. The report’s findings indicated that the immediate consequences of climate change would be “far more dire” than previously thought and acknowledged that avoiding these consequences will require “transforming the world economy at an unprecedented speed and scale.”

Our graduating class of 2020 will reach the mid-career point by the time the impacts of climate change begin to take devastating effect. Recognizing the need for urgency, U students issued a resolution to the Academic Senate calling for a reaffirmation of the university’s commitment to achieving net-zero carbon emissions. The resolution cites the IPCC report and references “the intergenerational impact of climate change wherein the consequences of each generation’s action affect successive generations’ environmental and physical health and their access to resources.”

The resolution called for the university to use its vast resources and collective brain power to explore bold and innovative solutions, serve as a living lab to address climate change, work in collaboration with community partners and establish a Presidential Task Force on Carbon Neutrality to evaluate and recommend options to achieve net-zero carbon emissions. Among other topics, the students asked that the task force reevaluate the appropriateness of the university’s 2050 deadline given the urgency detailed in the IPCC report. The resolution passed the Academic Senate with unanimous support.

In mid-August, Watkins and Dan Reed, senior vice president for Academic Affairs, addressed members of the newly formed Climate Commitment Task Force at its first meeting. The task force was called upon to do the following:

  • Lead and complete an initial campus community resilience assessment, including initial indicators and current vulnerability building up to a Community-Campus Climate Resilience Action Plan in 2022
  • Set an updated target date for achieving carbon neutrality
  • Define actions to make carbon neutrality and resilience a part of the curriculum
  • Define actions to expand research in carbon neutrality and resilience

Keith Diaz Moore, in his role as interim chief sustainability officer, and Brenda Bowen, director of the Global Change & Sustainability Center, serve as co-chairs of the task force. While the task force contains key players from across campus, it will be calling for input from additional groups and forming sub-committees to collect, gather and analyze information as it develops a plan for the future.

“Let us use this challenge to accelerate achievement and contribute to healthier communities and a healthier world,” Reed said. “Our university doesn’t operate in isolation, it is part of a greater ecosystem and partnerships are key. Our approach must be based on the integration of social equity, ecological integrity and economic security.”

New leadership will be driving these dramatic changes across campus. A search is currently underway for a new chief sustainability officer, who will take over as co-chair of the task force and be responsible for strategic planning and implementation of the institutional sustainability efforts at the U.

All these efforts are transforming our campus and helping us prepare for the future. Our goal as an institution of higher education is to prepare our students to thrive in an everchanging world. We need to prepare them for the planet they will inhabit in 2050, which will be vastly different from the planet we inhabit today. Our success and their success depend on the engagement of the entire community and benefit the entire community. It will take one U to build resilient communities where we can grow, thrive and enjoy the same quality of life that we enjoy today.

A Sustainable U

Over the past several years, the U has made significant progress in becoming a more sustainable institution. Here’s how:

  • In 2018, the U achieved its lowest total energy consumption and lowest total energy cost since 2010—despite a 23% growth in total building area over the same time span.
  • From 2017 to 2018, the U reduced local emissions by 3.2%.
  • The U will be investing $2 million to improve energy efficiency in existing buildings over the next year.
  • The U has crafted a seven-year plan to invest $22 million in strategically replacing assets and other efforts designed to reduce the university’s carbon footprint, which is expected to result in net savings over a 21-year period.
  • Gardner Commons is the U’s first net-zero ready (all electric) building and the U is exploring ways to electrify all future buildings. By 2021, the U expects two-thirds of its electricity will come from renewable sources.
  • Investments in active and sustainable transportation have led to a 25% expansion of dedicated bikeways on campus.
  • Currently, 48% of commuters choose a mode of transportation other than driving alone to campus. These transportation choices significantly reduce noxious tailpipe emissions and help clear our air.
  • The U is implementing plans to divert all food waste from the landfill, which will dramatically improve our diversion rate.
  • A major upgrade to the campus irrigation system is projected to save more than 87 million gallons of water per year.

Active Transportation August Update

New on campus

  • The Autonomous Shuttle is here! Beginning fall semester, a 15-passenger autonomous shuttle will be on campus undergoing testing with our partners UDOT and UTA. Be on the lookout for signage and stops along Student Life Way.
  • Buy an E-bike and 2 years of maintenance for your University department to travel around campus today – visit Bingham Cyclery to choose your model and accessories!
  • Need a place to park your escooter or eboard? The south entrance of the Student Life Center is evaluating a new dock to securely park these types of devices. Try it out and send us your thoughts!

 

Safety Tip

What does the Green Paint on the road or path mean?  Bright green paint with a bicycle symbol indicates a bicycle-only path. A bicycle-only path exists for east/west travel from Fort Douglas Boulevard, across the Legacy Bridge to the Law School. Remember to wear a helmet and slow your speed to avoid a crash and injury to yourself or others.

 

Construction and Commuter Updates

  • The pedestrian crossing on the East side of the Foothill Drive and Mario Capecchi intersection is COMPLETE.  Use the push-button indicators to safely cross at this location, especially in the early evening hours.
  • The 2nd phase of rebuilding Wasatch Drive is about to begin – be aware of construction detours as the roadway is rebuilt. The separated walking and bicycle path to Medical TRAX from the Wasatch Drive roundabout remains open during Phase 2 construction.
  • In August, the parking lot east of the Union Building will undergo construction to better accommodate UTA bus and campus shuttle stops.  Raised pedestrian crosswalks, ADA improvements and drop-off zones will improve safety and flow for commuters at this transit hub.

 

Mark Your calendar

Save the Date! U Bike Week is September 9-13. More details will be posted soon.

 

Humans of the U: Myron Willson

Janelle Hanson, managing editor, University of Utah Communications June 14, 2019

“I’m retiring as the deputy chief sustainability officer after being on campus for 10 years. I’ve seen a lot of change over the past decade. There’s a lot more support for sustainability efforts across campus.

In my former career as an architect and planner—plus trained in California in the 70s—the environment was always a component of my work. Realizing that the people in the buildings had far more of an impact over the building’s life than the building itself, I started getting interested in human behavior, which turned to looking at how those people got to the building and their commute patterns.

I was also an adjunct in the College of Architecture teaching design. I started volunteering and helped a student who wanted to add LEED requirements to all university buildings. And then I ended up leaving architecture to be more involved in the broader picture for campus.

In my mind sustainability is the poster child for One U. It cuts across all aspects of the university—from health care to Research Park and Commuter Services to Student Affairs. One thing I’ve really enjoyed being a part of was helping to rework the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund, which had some barriers. It took us four or five years working with administration on a structure that would make it a truly revolving loan fund. Now, it’s approaching $500,000 to be invested in sustainability efforts and will continue to grow long after we’re all gone.

Sustainability is a collaborative effort. I’ve loved working with people to create solutions. There is a need and always a place for everybody at the table to get involved because some of our poor and more vulnerable communities are the ones most impacted by the decisions that the rest of us make.

After retirement, I’m going to travel a bit, but I will still be involved locally with sustainability efforts through a nonprofit called Heal Utah and get more involved with pedestrian and bicycle safety.”

—Myron Willson, deputy chief sustainability officer, Sustainability Office