UTA electric buses being outfitted with air quality monitors for better data, better policies

Air quality monitors are installed on top of a Utah Transit Authority electric bus on Friday, to get air quality readings from more locations in Salt Lake County.

Air quality monitors are installed on top of a Utah Transit Authority electric bus on Friday, to get air quality readings from more locations in Salt Lake County. (Emily Ashcraft, KSL.com)

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SALT LAKE CITY — UTA buses will be carting around an extra passenger — air quality monitors were installed Friday to help researchers get data from neighborhoods along certain routes.

The first-of-its-kind air quality monitoring system is the first of three being installed on Utah Transit Authority buses this year. The monitors have been used on TRAX vehicles since 2014, but placing them on buses allows for information from a wider variety of neighborhoods along any route that can be run with electric buses.

"Right now Salt Lake County is going to be the best-studied county in air quality," said Daniel Mendoza, atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah — although the county already has that label due to the monitors on TRAX, he said.

Mendoza said that the monitors installed on the top of the bus are unique because of their ability to measure nitrogen oxides, which will help researchers separate out how much of the pollution is coming from cars. Additionally, the system also includes a "mini meteorological station," so that it can consider factors like humidity in its readings.

Michael Shea, Salt Lake County sustainability director, said he began working on this project with University of Utah researchers about a year and a half ago. Since UTA had electric buses, he asked the scientists about putting more on the buses. There would be a problem with putting monitors on diesel buses because they would not be able to account for pollutants from the bus itself.

The project costs about $150,000 including $40,000 for each system of monitors, Shea said. It is funded by Salt Lake County, UTA, the Utah Legislature, Rocky Mountain Power, Utah Clean Air Partnership, Wasatch Front Regional Council and the U.

Shea said that currently, they are just guessing that air quality varies from neighborhood to neighborhood, while as this project continues they will be able to learn more about what variations exist and what is causing those variations. Eventually, data from the buses will be uploaded live and made publicly available so residents near the bus routes can get a current reading of their air quality.

Additionally, the readings will be used to better direct spending designed to address air quality, because neighborhoods with higher pollution levels will be targeted instead of using a uniform approach throughout the Wasatch Front.

"It's all about being able to provide better data to policymakers and use that data to inform better policies," Shea said.

Mendoza said they hope to add these monitoring systems to every electric bus in the valley and use them to analyze the air quality changes around events like the annual state fair, and get repeated data for specific neighborhoods so that they can educate residents about air quality impacts.

"We want to bring this to the community as an educational piece, as well. We want to have community events where we can discuss this with community members ... because a lot of people may not know what they're reading, (or) may not be concerned about what they're reading," Mendoza said.

It's all about being able to provide better data to policymakers and use that data to inform better policies.

–Michael Shea, Salt Lake County sustainability director

Hal Johnson with UTA said that they currently have three electric buses on county routes and two on the U. campus, but there are more electric buses on the way.

According to Johnson, UTA is trying to "diversify" its bus fleet to be able to adjust when fuel prices increase. The battery-operated buses get 19 miles per gallon; while diesel buses get four to five miles per gallon. Each battery allows the bus to go about 120 miles, and UTA has fast chargers for the buses at the Salt Lake Central Station.

University of Utah atmospheric sciences professor Logan Mitchell, who started the TRAX project, said repeated results from the TRAX meters have been able to increase their air quality understanding with repeated readings in multiple locations. He said that this research is "cutting-edge" and that they have had interest from people around the country who are interested in starting similar projects.


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Emily Ashcraft joined KSL.com as a reporter in 2021. She covers courts and legal affairs, as well as health, faith and religion news.


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