Every so often when I’m on my bike in traffic I wonder about the potential impacts of the air pollution I’m riding through. Do the benefits from riding override the negative health impacts of riding in poor air quality?
Fortunately, Tainio et al (2016) asked this very question. They also included walking in their study and the results are positive for all us active commuters. Except for the very worst air quality, the benefits of riding outweigh the added pollution exposure compared to both staying home and driving. It would take an hour and a half of daily biking in pretty bad air conditions before it would be worse and longer if the conditions aren’t that bad. Walking in the same conditions would take more than 10 hours before the physical activity benefits were negated by the pollution.
I’ve personally heard more arguments against biking than for it. And any time that the air quality is bad that’s what people focus on. But here’s the thing, my breathing actually is really bad due to pretty severe asthma. But I’m super functional, way more than anyone would expect including my doctor. Except that I’m also really active so my breathing muscles are in pretty good shape so I can deal with not being able to breathe.
I feel like this applies to other parts of my life too with various chronic injuries that I manage because I keep my strength up and my weight down. And then there is mental health. While this wasn’t part of the study, there are clear links between physical activity and mental health.
If anything, it is the challenge of riding with poor bike infrastructure that poses the most threat to my health, as shown by the saga I’ve been through in the past because of a wrist injury from bike commuting and being run off the road by a car. Adding bike infrastructure always comes up against budgets but imagine if we took the money saved on health care from people who commute actively and spent it on adding infrastructure for active transport. This would likely have the added benefit of improving air quality making the air safer for everyone.