For Newton residents living next door to six lanes of Massachusetts Turnpike, the statewide lockdown during this pandemic has provided reprieve from the daily rumbling engines, wailing sirens and honking horns of rush hour.
As the COVID-19 outbreak has reduced the number of vehicles on Interstate 90 — which usually sees thousands of cars and trucks passing each day — air quality in the area has improved as pollution has dropped, according to a number of residents. They also said what used to be a constant, annoying background noise has grown quieter in recent days.
Jeffrey Geddes, 35, a professor in Boston University’s Earth and Environment department, studies traffic emissions in another heavily trafficked part of the Boston area — Kenmore Square. He said traffic emissions of nitrogen dioxide in April dropped roughly 50 percent compared to previous years. Governor Baker put in place a stay-at-home advisory March 24.
“It’s as if we just turned rush hour off,” Geddes said of the drop in traffic emissions. “It does not look like a city.”
Jake Auchincloss, a Newton city councilor and chair of the council’s Transportation Committee, said in an interview that “members of the Newton City Council are very aware of how air quality, transportation, and economic opportunity are all intertwined.”
Calling transportation and traffic the “single biggest challenge to the state’s continued prosperity,” Auchincloss said he is concerned the aftermath of the coronavirus will leave Newton residents worried about health hazards of public transportation.
“I think a lot of constituents are going to be concerned about transit as a modality in an era of increased sensitivity and anxiety about close personal contact with strangers,” Auchincloss said.
Nancy Landry, 51, a registered nurse who works at the Jackson Walnut Park School in Newton, has lived on a street in West Newton near the Mass. Pike her entire life.
Landry, who lives with her husband, Richard, 50, and four children ages 19, 18, 16 and 15, said she was worried prior to the pandemic about how the constant road noise caused anxiety in one of her children. The hushed highway has provided relief.
“It’s been quiet and peaceful,” Landry said. “It just seems like we’re in the countryside.”
While Landry has not observed a substantial difference in air quality alone, she has noticed a different sign the air is cleaner when she is out for a run.
“I can smell the flowers,” Landry said.
Annette Seaward, 54, has lived on a tiny street near the Mass. Pike in her husband’s childhood house since 1989. She and her husband, William, 63, currently are at home with their two adult children, ages 22 and 24.
A preschool teacher at the Second Church Nursery School, Seaward enjoys a minutes-long walking commute to work over the Mass. Pike. Prior to the pandemic, she said, the cars, sirens and horns of the highway entered the house unimpeded by any sound protection wall.
“There’s a cement retaining wall across on the other side of the Pike, so the noise bounces off of that right into our yard, our home,” Seaward said. “There’s constantly loud, loud noise coming from the Pike.”
Seaward said she had become so accustomed to the noise that it helped her tell time.
“I know what 3 o’clock in the morning sounds like — I know what 5 o’clock in the morning sounds like,” she said. “I look out the window, and I can give you a traffic report.”
But the onset of the pandemic, she said, has changed her ability to read the Turnpike clock.
“Because there’s so much less traffic, the early morning traffic sounds like the middle of the night traffic,” Seaward said.
For Amanda Adam, 32, who lives on Bowers Street, moving from Boston to Newton was an effort to find an oasis from the city for herself, her boyfriend and her Bernedoodle, Ollie.
Living next to the highway, she’s always imagined the sound of traffic flow in the morning like the ocean.
“Probably two months ago, you would hear the 5 o'clock horns with people trying to get home from work or just sitting on the pike in traffic,” Adam said. ”Now just there's this nice, dull white noise sound because cars are actually driving on the pike versus just sitting on it.”
Adam said the air feels “less smoggy or less gray,” which she attributes at least some to the decrease in traffic.
And while less noise and cleaner air are welcome, Adam said she is looking forward to having the Mass. Pike and the nearby commuter rail back to normal.
“It does make me a little sad because it's sort of this realization that things aren't the way they were,” she said. “I kind of miss it because it's almost this background realization of how quiet our city’s become.”
Lauren Beaudry, 36, lives with her family a few blocks from the Auburndale commuter rail station. She said she hadn’t thought about either the air quality or the noise in her 10 years of living there — until these past few weeks.
“It smells like the kind of air you would get in Maine or at the beach or something,” Beaudry said of a Saturday afternoon walk on a bridge over the Pike. “I consciously thought to myself, wow, that's air I haven’t smelt in a while.”
Beaudry said she’s trying to get outside more with her husband, two daughters ages 6 and 1 , and their husky, Jaxson.
Both outside and inside, she said, she has also gradually noticed the lack of constant sirens, helicopters, as well as the hum of rush hour.
“It does make me hopeful for climate change and that maybe after the pandemic is over people will consider their habits more and do more remote work,” Beaudry said. “There is a difference.
“You know, what part I can play in that when this is all over?”