Is it safe to bike in a city, or will the air quality give me lung cancer? Among other safety concerns, air quality is pretty high on a biker’s list.
And unfortunately, biking in a city isn’t as safe as we’d like it to be, air quality does add another layer of concern.
So does biking in polluted air outweigh the other health benefits you get from cycling? And what can you do to lower your risk? Let’s take a look.
The Problem With Air Pollution
And you breathe that air whether you’re inside or outside, on the subway or on the bus, driving, or cycling.
So the real question isn’t does cycling exposes me to toxic air quality, because the answer is yes – everything does. The real question is whether or not those effects are worse than driving.
Is Cycling in Bad Air More Dangerous Than Driving?
So we know there are loads of health benefits that come with cycling, everything from a healthier heart, lower depression, and weight loss. But we also know air pollution is pretty nasty stuff, causing everything from a weakened immune system to depression to lung damage.
So at what point do they cancel each other out? How long is too long to be working out in toxic air before the air starts to kill you faster than exercise heals you?
Fortunately, this study figured it out. You get peak benefits cycling 80 minutes every day. The benefits continue to outweigh the risks up to 300 minutes of cycling every day. At that point, air pollution starts to wreak more havoc and outweighs the benefits of cycling.
And overall, those who drive with the windows down, or those on a bus are generally exposed to the most air pollution. But drivers with a closed air circulation cycle, cyclists, and pedestrians all had less toxic air exposure.
So yes, cycling still outweighs the risks of toxic air.
What Can You Do to Cut Your Exposure?
So while the studies show you’re safer cycling than you are driving with the windows down, you probably still want to cut your exposure even further.
And there are ways you can do that. Two main factors contribute to how much pollution you inhale from the surrounding vehicles. Those are the time of your commute and proximity to other vehicles.
But other weird factors affect pollution levels too, like the amount of greenery on a street, and even how tall the buildings are.
Taller buildings tend to trap smog more than short buildings. So cycling in a big city with a lot of skyscrapers will lead to more toxicity than cycling where the buildings are shorter, even if all other factors are accounted for.
But cycling on a tree-lined street is still even better since the trees help filter the air and put out more oxygen and take in carbon dioxide.
Or even better, if you can add a trip through the park, instead of along a busy street, you’ll be further away from the heart of the pollution, and less exposed to it.
But how long you’re breathing that air matters too. Like we saw above, cycling for about 80 minutes every day is perfect, but longer than 300 minutes means the costs start to outweigh the benefits.
It’s Not Just About You
Right now the studies are saying that yes, pollution is awful, but cycling still outweighs those risks.
But what if a new study were to come out tomorrow that said cycling in polluted air was the new smoking? Would you stop?
The truth is, we only have about 10 years to make massive changes to the way we lead our lives before climate change becomes completely irreversible. And transportation counts for 29% off all U.S. pollutants.
Cycling is one of the best ways to curb this toxic habit. And even if studies were to come out tomorrow that contradict what we know now, it’s still a healthy choice for the environment, and for others who are more susceptible to air pollution than you.
By cycling instead of driving, you’re making a statement that you care about your health, and the health of your community and the planet as a whole.
Cycling is Still Better For You and Your Community
Studies currently say that the benefits of cycling outweigh the damaging costs of air pollution, but there are still things you can do to lower the number of pollutants you inhale.
As much as possible, try to cycle away from traffic. If you can, choose a tree-lined street over a street without plants, or even better cycle through a park if possible.
But even if cycling weren’t better for your health, it would still be the right call for your community, and the planet as a whole. So when you cycle instead of drive, you’re making a statement that health matters to you, on a personal and global scale.
Toxic air isn’t the only problem that comes with cycling in the city. Here are other popular complaints among cyclist commuters, and how you can fix them.