Urban Cyclists: Stick Together, Don't Inhale?

Urban Cyclist With Breathing Filter photo

Poor air quality (and even air that passes the World Health Organization's safe limits for ambient pollution) can significantly impair lung function of cyclists who are riding close to the tail pipes of buses and cars belching particulate matter, research of cycle messengers on the streets of London by Brunel University has found. The fact that the cycle couriers were exercising exacerbated the negative effect of the bad air, researchers said.

While the study recommends that cyclists choose times of less traffic to protect their lungs, it doesn't help those of us that are cycling commuters. Meanwhile a University of South Wales study finds that drivers take more care when there are more cyclists on the roads. What's a dedicated biker to do?

Top tips: cycle off-peak hours, avoid bus lanes, wear a filter?
Taking apart the first study, couriers in the Brunel research were wearing a special breathing filter apparatus - designed in part by researchers - and had changes in their lungs recorded after they had worked a 7.5 hour shift delivering by bike on London's busy streets. When measured pollution load of particulate matter was high, lung function decreased by around five percent, and couriers' lungs suffered from what the study called "acute inflammation." When air was better, lung function improved.

The impairment of lung function at relatively low concentrations is worrying - Brunel Professor Alison McConnell equates 30 minutes of cycling in bad air to 8 hours of sitting by the roadside because the higher breathing rate of pedaling cyclists increases their uptake of pollution. But McConnell has a somewhat vested interest - she's also part of a time that created a filter called the PureBreathe to help "protect urban exercisers." The PureBreathe's airtight mouthpiece and a medical-grade filter help reduce the ambient dust, particulates and pollen, and was made available to UK athletes at Beijing's Olympic games. While there have certainly been days especially in humid summer weather, where a filter in downtown traffic would have been welcome, the nearness of McConnell to the research does cast a bit of a unwelcome commercial pall to the results. (In addition, how do you keep the particulates from going up your nose?)

Cycling's 'Virtuous Cycle'
Meanwhile, while your lungs might be worse off on busy traffic times, your safety level might be higher, especially when there are many more cyclists around you (spreading around the particulates, so to speak. The University of New South Wales study compiled research from different countries (15 countries including the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia, and 68 cities in California) to find that the urban myth of "safety in numbers" does hold true for cyclists.

As cycling participation increases, the study finds, motorists choose or are forced to change their behavior, and injuries and cycle-related deaths also go down. In rough terms, a community that doubles its number of cyclists can expect about a one-third drop in the per-cyclists frequency of a crash with a motor vehicle.

Now how do we get both motorists and cyclists to agree that cell-phone talking and texting while in traffic is just a foolhardy practice? Via: Ecologist and Streetsblog
Read more
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