Driving Away Air Pollution in Mexico City

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This interview of the Grand Prize Winner of the Data for Climate Action challenge was produced by WIRED Brand Lab with Western Digital Corporation. Interviewees: Claudia Octaviano, Sergio Castellanos, Alex Gao

UN Global Pulse and Western Digital recently announced the winners of the Data for Climate Action Challenge (D4CA) at the Data Innovation: Generating Climate Solutions event during the United Nations climate change conference (COP23) in Bonn, Germany. 

A team of researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and the Instituto Nacional de Ecología y Cambio Climático received the challenge grand prize for their research into Mexico City’s traffic patterns. The team analyzed data from Waze to evaluate different transportation electrification policies in order to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

WIRED Brand Lab: Congratulations on winning. Can you give us an overview of your winning idea?

Claudia: Our project is called Electro-mobility: Cleaning Mexico City’s Air with Transformational Climate Policies Through Big Data Pattern Analysis in Traffic & Social Mobility. It looked at how we can use Waze data from Google, which shows the mobility patterns of people using their cell phones to try to optimise their routes, to build a picture of where congestion is occurring in Mexico City – and where that congestion is causing pollution.

Once we had a picture of this congestion, we then carried out modelling analysis to understand different climate change policies related to electric mobility, i.e. electric cars. We looked at what would happen if you electrified taxis, buses and the entire small car fleet in the city. Another important aspect was to incorporate social indicators to see where the marginalised people were moving to and from, and how we can incorporate these aspects into the problem of electric mobility into our planning to ensure everyone benefits.

WBL: Why did you choose Mexico City?

Sergio: Mexico City is one of the most congested cities in the world. There are 20 million litres of fuel consumed per day in the city, which produces millions of tons of CO2 but also black carbon – the sooty black material emitted from burning fossil fuels.

WBL: Which causes serious health issues for the city’s residents?

Claudia: One of our studies show that more than 10,000 premature deaths can be attributed to the particulate matter in the air that comes from burning fossil fuels. We’re talking about real impact on people’s lives. Children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable, so we’re looking to develop policies that change their lives directly.

WBL: What is the electric car infrastructure like in Mexico City currently?

Claudia: Mexico has started a pilot project to deploy electric vehicles. There are around 1,000 stations in the country, which is relatively small. The infrastructure needs to be developed.

Our project looks at the road network and where it’s most congested, but also the distribution of power to see where there are natural intersections between the two. You need to think about these two systems at the same time. You need to think about where the electricity infrastructure currently is and where the highest points of congestion are in order for this solution to work. We want electric mobility but if you don’t have the infrastructure that’s going to be very difficult.

WBL: How is policy currently decided when it comes to deploying charging stations? 

Claudia: It’s a great question. The important point is to have a positive policy making environment. Mexico City has been thinking about its air pollution problem for a long time. As a result, the Megalópolis Environmental Commission (CAME), which is new, was formed.

It brings together different regional governments, not just Mexico City’s government, but also the neighbouring states who contribute to the problem and therefore need to be part of the solution. Having multiple local governments talking is often difficult, but now there is a framework to make it easier to talk and do research.

WBL: What datasets did you use to carry out your study?

Alex: We used two really big datasets. The first one was the Waze data. This was really crucial to help get an understanding of how many vehicles were on the roads at any given time and what speed they were travelling, which helped give us an idea of the amount of emissions they were creating. In addition, we needed to use existing air pollution models, created by the Environmental Protection Agency in the US, but we used a special version for Mexico. We used that to map emissions output and apply that to the city.

WBL: What were your initial findings?

Sergio: We found traffic was at its busiest predominately in the early afternoon and evening. It was busy throughout the day, but it was the peaks in the afternoon where traffic was at its highest that came as a surprise. That allowed us to get a sense of where the best places would be to place charging stations. Some governments have already reached out to us to help implement these ideas into their own policies and turn them into action.

WBL: What was the most effective part of the transport network that could be converted to electric?

Alex: One thing that was incredibly surprising was we thought that the simple reduction in volume of cars would respond linearly with how much emissions were being produced. We found that really wasn’t true. Take buses for example. They make up such a small proportion of vehicles traveling through Mexico City, we didn’t think that electrifying the bus fleet would create the huge changes that it did. But, due to their fuel mix and, that they’re running 24/7 as opposed to private vehicles that run just 4% of the time, buses produced a lot more emissions than we thought.
WBL: What happens next? 

Claudia: More studies, more data, a bigger picture of the impacts of inequality that pollution brings. Mexico City is already thinking about one of the policies we highlighted, but we want to include the wider CAME to have them think about some of the choices they are making in this area and how they can include other aspects, too. Hopefully this will enable better decision making. We are also looking at more efficient diesel buses, so there is an argument for taking smaller steps first before a complete move to electric vehicles.

Watch an interview with the winning team:

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