Keep riding that bike – but protect your health by choosing routes with less diesel exhaust & other traffic related air pollution

Photo: INHALE Project map of Toronto showing levels of Ultrafine Particulate Matter.

Many urban bicyclists in the US and other countries ride on streets with heavy levels of diesel exhaust and other traffic related air pollution, or on bike paths that border high-pollution areas.  However, until recently we didn’t know if riding in polluted environments was on balance good or bad for us.

While we know that diesel exhaust is deadly, there wasn’t a good answer to the question, “am I better off not riding my bicycle in polluted environments, or do the benefits of cycling outweigh the risks?”

Research conducted in the last couple of years, is starting to address that question – and the  answer seems to be to continue to ride, but select routes that minimize your exposure to air pollution.

A just-published study led by researchers from the University of Cambridge answered the big question – they found that it is better to walk or cycle in most cities, “Cycling and walking make sense for almost everyone and almost everywhere,”  

“It provides further support for investment in infrastructure to get people out of their cars and onto their feet or their bikes – which can itself reduce pollution levels at the same time as supporting physical activity.”

However, the study did not take into account variations in air pollution levels within a city, or the impact of riding on or near polluted streets or other polluted areas.

Fortunately, other researchers have done  that. A study released late last year, led by Dr. Jennifer Peel, a Moving Forward Network participant and professor at  Colorado State University, addressed that question.

Her team found that bicyclists inhale three times as much air pollution as people breathing normally.  And she found something very important that we should all consider – riders in Fort Collins can reduce the amount of air pollution they inhale by 20-30 percent by selecting avoiding major roadways.

A study conducted at Portland State University showed that in that city, which has higher levels of air pollution than Fort Collins, some streets had 100 to 200 percent more pollution than other nearby roadways, and riders could reduce the amount of pollution entering their blood streams by 40 to 100 percent by selecting routes with cleaner air.

INHALE Project Toronto bicycle

But, how do you know which streets are safer?  In most cities, there is no official air pollution data for individual streets.  In Ontario, Canada, the Toronto Environmental Alliance and others have started the INHALE Project,  the Initiative for Healthy Air and Local Economies, in which bicyclists carry monitors to capture and share the information they need to ride more safely.  Check out their map at the top of this blog post!

If you don’t have data like that in your city, advocate for your local government to provide it, or organize to do it yourself, in collaboration with local bicycle, environmental, or health organizations.  In the meantime, know that if you smell diesel exhaust, you may be inhaling high levels of air pollution and risking your health.

For more information, please see:

Walking and cycling good for health even in cities with higher levels of air pollution, University of Cambridge

Cyclists breathe the brunt of harmful pollution, commuter study finds, Colorado State University

Busy Streets Are Bad For Cyclists’ Lungs, Portland Study Says, Oregon Public Radio

Urban Cyclists: Don’t Breathe on Busy Roads,

I Put an Air Quality Monitor on My Bike And Went Looking For Smog, (Toronto)