2017 State of Our Environment Report
Promoting healthy outdoor air quality for all residents is the goal of the City of Austin’s Air Quality Program. The primary air quality concern in Austin is ground-level ozone. Ozone forms when nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) interact with sunlight and mix like a thin soup in the outdoor air. Many everyday activities and man-made sources of NOx and VOCs, such as vehicle engines, electric generation units and industrial facilities, contribute to this process.
Elevated ozone levels can have a significant impact on human health, causing many individuals to experience increased respiratory illnesses. Vulnerable populations, including children, older adults and those with lung diseases such as asthma, are more likely to be affected by increased ozone levels.
Figure 1. Effects of Ground-Level Ozone
Learn more air quality basics at aircentraltexas.org/en/regional-air-quality/what-is-ground-level-ozone.
Status and Trends
On November 6, 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its initial air quality designations. The Capital Area, which includes Bastrop, Caldwell, Hays, Travis, and Williamson counties, was designated in attainment of the 2015 National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). According to a study by the Capital Area Council of Governments, the region has avoided a cost of roughly $900 million to $1.4 billion to our local economy by maintaining its attainment designations through many regional air quality planning efforts. To learn more about the potential cost of ozone nonattainment designations to Central Texas, visit capcog.org/documents/airquality/reports/2015/Potential_Costs_of_a_Nonattainment_Designation_09-17-15.pdf.
The EPA’s current ozone design value standard, which is used to determine compliance, is 70 parts per billion (ppb). The Capital Area’s design value falls just below the standard at 69 ppb, making it the largest region (by population) in Texas to be in attainment of the air quality standards.
Air quality can have a serious impact on human health. For instance, increased levels of ozone can reduce lung function and affect the respiratory system. Individuals can maintain their awareness of air quality levels by regularly checking the Air Quality Index at AirNow.gov during ozone season, March 1 through October 31. The Air Quality Index is a color-coded guide used nationwide that helps individuals understand how clean or polluted the air may be on a particular day. Figure 3 shows each air quality level related to health concerns and the matching color indicator.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) tracks current and historical local ozone levels. Ozone season in Central Texas runs from March 1 through October 31, with the highest ozone readings typically occurring in August and September.
Figure 4. Ozone Air Quality Index Trend. The yellow and orange bars in Figure 3 illustrate the number of days from January to December 2017 that the Central Texas region’s ozone monitors exceeded a healthy reading. Graphic courtesy of the Capital Area Council of Governments.
Unlike other areas in Texas, Austin doesn’t have a large number of point sources like factories and refineries that can be blamed for its air pollution. Instead, pollution from cars and trucks is the leading contributor to ozone formation. For this reason, the City of Austin Air Quality program’s primary focus in 2017 was to help reduce emissions from on-road vehicles and promote regional transportation demand management (TDM) opportunities. TDM is the application of strategies and policies to reduce single-occupancy vehicle trips by promoting sustainable modes of transportation like transit, biking, walking, telework and carpooling/vanpooling.
Providing information on a suite of transportation options, including carpooling/vanpooling, is key to managing our regional transportation challenges and maintaining air quality. In 2017, Commute Solutions, the regional trip reduction program, was revitalized. The City of Austin supports Commute Solutions through its participation in the newly formed Commute Solutions Coalition. The purpose of the Commute Solutions Coalition is to provide a “one-stop” sustainable transportation resource in the Central Texas area. Both private and public sector employers have access to resources including training for employee transportation coordinators, a comprehensive regional commute website, a ride-matching/data collection tool, and regional trip reduction contests and incentives. This program impacts thousands of commuters in our five-county area. To learn more about Commute Solutions, visit commutesolutions.com.
The City of Austin introduced the Commute Connections program in 2017 to help its employees rethink their commutes and access the trip reduction tools that the City provides. The City of Austin is one of the largest employers in Austin, and the manner in which employees commute to and from work has a large impact on traffic and air quality. One of the most effective ways to tackle traffic congestion and reduce harmful emissions is to reduce single-occupancy vehicle trips. This can be accomplished by encouraging employees to bike, walk, use transit options, carpool, vanpool, telework, work alternative hours, and work compressed schedules. The Commute Connections program is designed to help City departments reduce travel at peak commuting times by 30 percent by 2022.
A key component of increasing employee use of sustainable transportation modes under the Commute Connections Program is providing incentives for participation. Smart Commute Rewards launched for City of Austin employees on May 1, 2017, with the support of a grant from the Capital Area Council of Governments. In 2017, the program offered employees the opportunity to earn additional vacation hours and prizes for taking sustainable transportation options like telework, carpool, vanpool, transit, biking, and walking. More than 600 employees earned vacation hours at the end of the six-month pilot. Thanks to the program’s success, tons of harmful pollutants were avoided and the City of Austin Transportation Department received the Air Central Texas Public Sector Award for its innovative approach to changing employee commutes.