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Yerevan’s Toxic Air: Improving Public Transport Can Help

By Varouj Vartanian

In 2021, about 1 in 6 deaths in Armenia caused by stroke and ischemic heart disease were attributed to air pollution

Transport emissions in 2021 accounted for 90% of Yerevan’s total air pollution

Particulate matter is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and consists of a combination of smog, ash, soot, dust, and toxic microscopic compounds produced by exhaust systems. These toxicants are responsible for many respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases, and cancers. Air pollution being a silent killer requires more public attention due to its detrimental health effects.

The Technical Feasibility Study commissioned to analyze Yerevan’s atmosphere and environment found that the main source of air pollutants in Yerevan is automobile emissions.

In 2015, it was estimated that 95% of pollutants in Yerevan's air were a result of urban transport. Today, PM2.5 and PM10 concentrations in Yerevan often far exceed the maximum recommended limit under WHO guidelines. In 2021, the concentration of particulate matter in all of Armenia exceeded the WHO guideline by 9x. Yerevan is Armenia’s most industrialized and populous city, so the concentration is expected to be much higher in the capital.

Further recent evidence that Yerevan's air pollution is mainly linked to automobiles is by studying levels of air pollution in the period after March 16, 2020, which is when Armenia declared a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Following the state of emergency which heavily reduced urban and traffic activity, concentrations of dust particles were reduced by 41% compared to the month prior to the state of emergency. A sharp decrease in air pollution was confirmed by Berkeley Earth's monitoring team a month after the state of emergency declaration in March.

By June 2022 as urban activity was nearing the levels of pre-pandemic Yerevan, the Prosecutor General's Office confirmed that air pollutant concentrations were exceeding the limit in the atmosphere of Yerevan once again. It was emphasized that over the past five years, Yerevan's particulate matter concentration had almost doubled from 0.0953 mg/m³ to 0.1720 mg/m³.

In 2019, 189,000 cars were imported into Armenia, but in 2020 only 7,300 cars were imported. Since 2020, there has been a slight increase in car imports, but still much lower than 2019 numbers. The true number of how many cars will be registered and in use cannot be measured. Recently Armenia has been a transit destination for citizens of abroad to come and purchase automobiles (i.e., the automobile market is oversaturated in Armenia and many citizens from abroad come to Armenia to purchase cheaper vehicles and circumvent import taxes). 

Earlier this year in March, Vahan Kerobyan (Minister of Economy) stated that electric cars imported into Armenia will be exempt from customs duties, while the federal government added that electric cars imported would be 32% cheaper than cars that run on gasoline.

According to the Ministry of Environment, there were only 41 electric cars imported into Armenia in 2017 and 2018 combined. In 2021, this number jumped to 6,645, which was nearly 10x the amount compared to 2019. In just the first half of 2022, we have seen almost 7,200 electric cars imported into Armenia.  It is unclear if this will make a significant impact on reducing air pollution, considering the ubiquity of gasoline-powered cars in the nation.

In 2019, some startup companies made attempts to popularize bicycle-sharing in Yerevan, but there hasn’t been significant change in public opinion. Yerevan’s driving culture and a city infrastructure don't allow for safe cycling. Bicyclists are at a heightened risk of accidents and injuries in general, but more so in Yerevan. It is not realistic to expect most adults to switch to bicycling, if any at all, but perhaps the local government will take steps to make bicycling safer in the city. The Ministry of Education could also develop plans to change the cultural attitude of the youth. If the new generation is raised differently, then perhaps Armenia can expect bicycling as a realistic mode of transportation in the future.

Revolutionizing public transportation would make a significant impact. A few years ago the chief of the Consumer Advisory Center stated that Armenia's system was the worst in the entire post-USSR. Since Armenia’s independence in 1991, Armenia has only added one extra line to the metro system (1996). To put this into perspective, Yerevan's metro construction began in 1981 and took only half a decade to complete. It has been repeatedly proven that cities with good public transportation and less concentration of cars on the roads have cleaner air. In 2021, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development promised Armenia a 20 million euro loan to obtain green buses, but citizens are still anticipating their implementation in the current bus network. Expanding public transportation should be a key goal in the capital. In Yerevan, there are only 10,000-20,000 daily trolleybus riders according to Yerevan's City Hall transport director. 

There are promises to add new vehicles because not all the ones they have are not operational. 

Former Yerevan mayors Taron Margaryan (2011-2018) and  Hayk Marutyan (2018 to December 2021) both worked with a British consulting firm to redesign Yerevan's public transit lines, and to replace marshrutkas (minivans) by greener full-sized buses by mid-2020, but progress has been stagnant. 

If public transportation improves, a reduction in automobile use in the city can be expected. Traffic police in Yerevan estimate that there are 500,000 automobiles on any given day in the city, and this dependence on passenger cars as a primary mode of transportation is what is mainly impeding clean air progress.

For further reading on Armenia's air quality and environmental issues, please explore the following Hetq articles:

(Varouj Vartanian is a third-year medical student with an interest in public health and medical anthropology. He received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and Harvard University.)

Comments (2)

every time I visit Yerevan I leave with a strong cough. too many cars.
Karmella Gharakanian
It was very helpful and such a great article. As an American/Armenian I am so proud of you Varoujan Vartanian we need more people like you in this world. Keep doing your hard work .

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