What if before you took a ride somewhere on your bike, you could look up not only the shortest and fastest way to get there, but also the one that has the cleanest air, and the one that is the quietest, with the least traffic? This sounds like a dream, something that all urban cyclist could find useful.
Maria Hatzopoulou, assistant professor of civil engineering at McGill University, has created a tool that does exactly for the city of Montreal, Canada. It's a project called Clean Ride Mapper that is part of the Transportation and Air Quality Research Group
As you can see above, when you select a starting point and a destination, you get three routes. The blue one is the most direct one, the green one is the cleanest one, as measured by lowest cumulative exposure to NOx. And the red one is the quietest one, as measured by the average amount of traffic that the cyclist would be exposed to.
Sometimes the three routes are very similar, sometimes they are very different and you have to make a choice; am I in a hurry? Do I want to avoid traffic as much as possible? Do I want to spare my lungs? Thankfully, low traffic and low pollution mostly go hand in hand, so those choices tend to go together.
Hopefully more data like this becomes available for all major cities. Grist reports:
Getting the data to make the map wasn’t easy. In this case, Hatzopoulou took four years of air sample data that was collected by Montreal cyclists who traveled the city on bikes equipped with $60,000 air-quality sensors. But I’ve run across accounts of similar projects in places like Antewerp, Belgium, and Siracusa, Italy, and prices are likely to come down as people keep tinkering with the technology. This summer, a team of cyclists in New York will embark on a similar project, with the help of a $250,000 grant given to a couple of professors at Colombia University.
Not only is this a useful tool for cyclists, but I think it can help create social pressure for change. Even non-cyclists can look at such maps and see what kind of crap they're breathing. When the data is buried in some academic paper somewhere, it's easy to ignore. But when regular people have access to it, the transparency can start to make things happen.
If you're in Montreal, you can get close to real-time info about air quality in the city here.
Unfortunately, the map itself is still more a proof of concept academic project than a user-friendly tool. The most obvious shortcoming is that there doesn't seem to be a smartphone app, which would make it most useful to people on the go. The user interface is also still a bit rudimentary, making you click around to select your starting point and destination(s).
But all that can be solved, and getting the data on which the map is built was no doubt the hardest part of the project.