It’s hard to deny the benefits of riding a bike. Cycling takes cars off the road, limits the time spent idling at intersections or in traffic, and offers much-needed exercise. As days grow warmer, more bikes hit the roads and trails.
As bike commuters know all too well, however, the best urban routes for cyclists tend to follow major thoroughfares — roads and highways replete with dangerous amounts of nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, and fine particulate matter. In fact, a study from Colorado State University found that exposure to fine particulate matter and black carbon was higher for bikers than for drivers.
That doesn’t mean we should avoid cycling. Some recent studies show that the health benefits of biking outweigh the health risks. What’s more, cyclists now have access to a number of cutting-edge products and apps to help them steer clear of pollution.
1. Bike Paths > Bike Lanes
While a boon for cyclists who’ve long had to compete with cars on major streets, dedicated bike lanes can be heavily polluted. Bike paths, on the other hand, are removed from roadways and are often hedged by trees and vegetation that can absorb pollutants. According to a 2014 Harvard School of Public Health study, bike paths have 33 percent lower concentrations of black carbon and nitrogen dioxide than bike lanes.
Because finding a bike path can be difficult, especially when you’ve come to rely on a few popular bike lanes, the BikeMap app offers an index of millions of paths, allowing users to locate secluded routes or to divert during a smoggy ride.
2. Wearable Filtration
Cyclists traveling to work often can’t afford to tack on five or ten extra minutes to commute via bike path. If you can’t avoid using a bike lane, consider purchasing a pollution mask. A simple surgical mask, researchers found, can nullify the adverse effect air pollution has on blood pressure and heart rate variability. Specialized masks, such as Respro’s City Mask, are even engineered to intercept odors and dust emitted by vehicle exhausts.
3. Sensors on Wheels
Cyclists can do their part to monitor air quality during their rides. With an air quality sensor affixed to their bike, riders can find out for themselves what routes to avoid, or they can submit data to an open-source platform or funded research project. In Toronto, for example, the Bicycling Air Monitoring program plots biker-collected air-quality data on a “heat map,” so cyclists can see what areas to avoid before or during their trip. Similar research projects are underway in New York, London, and Pittsburgh.
4. Cross Training
Sometimes your lungs need a break from outdoor pollution and allergens. If you cycle to stay in shape, an indoor bike still delivers a high-intensity workout. Bonus: Studies also show that indoor cycling can help reduce migraine symptoms and improve quality of life.