Good news is for the open-air bicyclist. A recent report informs us that bicyclists are the least affected or exposed to air pollution on daily commutes. More at risk are the people in cars and buses. It is disappointing, however, that pedestrians, who have such a light and peaceful footprint, are even more affected.
CleanTechnica asked James Tate, author of the study, for more insight that may help other countries with similar problems. Studying emissions are nothing new to Tate and the University of Leeds. Tate responded:
“People in Europe are more aware of air quality issues. But also conveying the time-saving is important. My aspiration is that this type of study and findings ‘nudge’ people out of cars into more active modes. My thoughts would be that encouraging walkers & cyclists to “invert” their view of the road network, to avoid main roads, pollution, and noise, accidents etc and use greener, quieter routes. Evidence such as our study raises people awareness and hopefully get some to think and even influence the behavior of a few.”
Dr. Ian Mudway, Lecturer in Respiratory Toxicology at Kings College London, offers similar advice: “If policy isn’t going to separate traffic from us, we have to separate ourselves from the traffic — we can take alternative routes, that’s one solution. … You can reduce your exposures by 50% just by walking down the street away from the busy street.”
Sometimes you just have to figure an alternative greener route, and some cities such as London have resources that help (see: Use our clean air route finder to choose the cleanest route to your destination).
The in-depth research into ongoing issues of air pollutants revealed more about commuters’ well-being, and the risks to the lungs and immune system. The University of Leeds investigation of commuter exposure to air pollution clarifies where the worst exposure to the traffic-related air pollutants is when commuting?
Early last summer ITS staff and students studied commuter exposure to fine particles using portable instruments (particle number counters) when commuting. “Week one saw simultaneous data collected traveling along the main road (Headingley Lane, A660) by four modes of transport, including bike, on foot, bus and in a specially instrumented electric van branded the ‘Smogmobile’ provided by Enviro Technology Services.”
The Guardian also quotes James Tate, who led the work:
“’On more congested routes, the cyclist would come out with the lowest inhaled dose,’” said James Tate, at the University of Leeds. Segregated cycle lanes would reduce cyclists’ exposure, even more, he said, with a distance of even a metre or two from traffic cutting particles by about a quarter. ‘Cycle lanes mean you can skip past traffic,’ he said. Other research shows the exercise benefits of cycling outweigh the harm of air pollution.”
It is disappointing that the pedestrian, who has a lighter footprint, should be the most at risk. Walking in general on a daily basis helps offset cognitive decline as well, despite the pollution.
Amber Watts, assistant professor of clinical psychology, expressed her findings that not only heart function and blood pressure, but also memory and all cognitive functions were in less decline even in people with Alzheimer’s disease when they engaged in daily walking. Her research shows that walkable communities can blunt cognitive decline. One might think that a complicated community layout might set off confusion in the aging. However, she found the opposite to be true. That complexity helped to keep cognition sharp in older adults.
So the trick is to choose those side streets, those out-of-the-way streets to avoid the pollution in busy areas. “Walkers have a decision to make, particularly on polluted days,” said Tate. “It may take a little longer but, if you have time, you can really cut down on your exposure by walking on a green route.”
The growing shift to electric bicycles, as I have chosen this year, makes sense. Today, as I bicycled to the store, I chose the quieter route for safety but also for my lungs. Now, with an electric assist, it is possible to breathe less when in dense amounts of traffic, using the assist to move quickly past exhaust/emissions, and then go back to pedaling harder and breathing deeper when the traffic subsides on a quiet street. Without pollution, like walking, bicycling balances the brain and invigorates and settles the heart and circulation.
As we cannot all go off the emission grid due to work and living circumstance, we should at least attempt to take the greener streets.
For more, the short video “AIR — A film about the air we breathe” offers motivation and insight. The film is not part of the report, but offers similar research. A couple of the suggestions from Coming Up For Air are:
#1 Choose quieter streets and avoid the busier exhaust-filled streets. Discover the side streets.
#2. Get out of your car as car drivers can be exposed to twice as much air pollution as pedestrians and nine times more than a cyclist.