An air quality survey by Cuenca’s Office of Municipal Mobility reports that vehicle traffic, particularly diesel-powered buses, is the city’s main source of air pollution. The survey, which has shown steady improvement since 2009, also reports that the most polluted place in town is Calle Presidente Cordova between Benigno Malo and Padre Aguirre.
The mobility office maintains 19 air monitoring stations in Cuenca that record a variety of polluting compounds, such as carbon monoxide.
According to Dario Tapia, mobility office director, the Cuenca canton has 120,500 registered cars, trucks and buses. “This is in a population of about 600,000, which is the highest vehicle to people ratio in Ecuador and one of the highest in Latin America.”
By contrast, U.S. cities have five times as many cars per capita as Cuenca. Overall, the U.S. has the highest-vehicle-to-population ratio the world, at one vehicle for every 1.10 person.
Tapia, says that the results of the pollution survey are intended to alert authorities of health risks but also to guide city policy to minimize air pollution in the future. “The changes planned for the historic district, especially the tram, will improve air quality significantly.” He added that the conversion of several El Centro streets to pedestrian malls, which is planned for the next five years will also help clean the air.
According to Tapia, the tram eliminates six bus routes through El Centro. “In addition, we are replacing older, more polluting buses with newer less polluting models. Some of the newer buses will be electric, like the Chinese battery operated bus that visited Cuenca earlier in the year.”
Cuenca expat and former air quality engineer from Philadelphia, John Mathis, says that the results are in line with past surveys and comes as no surprise. “Most of us know that the worst air in Cuenca is along bus routes in the historic district, where traffic is heavy and streets are narrow. We’ve all had our share of gag attacks.”
Mathis says that, overall, Cuenca rates above average for Latin American cities with populations over 250,000. “There was a World Health Organization survey three years ago that ranked Cuenca in the top 25% for quality. There is no heavy industry here to speak of so the main problem is cars and buses.”
Mathis, who lives in the historic district, looks forward to the tram. “Since I walk everywhere and I love living in the center, I’m thrilled about the train and the fact that it will get buses off the street in my neighborhood,” he says. “I’ve lived in places with much worse pollution than Cuenca, even in the U.S., so I can put up with it for a little longer.”
He adds: “Many of my friends don’t understand that the pollution you don’t see and smell, like the type that’s common in the U.S., can be just as dangerous to your health as the kind we have in Cuenca. At least here, you can avoid the smoke and walk on a street without buses.”
The mobility office’s air quality monitors record levels of carbon monoxide (CO), sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NOx), carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) and particulate matter with diameter less than 10 micrometers.