Air Pollution and Bicycling

Breathing behind the exhaust pipes of cars, trucks and SUVs is one of the worst parts of bike commuting. Although passengers in motor vehicles breathe in extra pollution from the toxic chemicals leaching off the car interior itself, a recent study found that bicyclists in Brussels breathe in 5 times more air pollution than drivers or pedestrians. On the other hand, I remember a study that declared bicyclists breathe in less air pollution, but I cannot find a link to it now. What I know for sure is my own experience and I feel like I breathe in a lot of pollution while cycling.

Air Pollution - Image (c) Tom Krymkowski

This subject is on my mind due to a recent experience. Yesterday morning a truck, similar to the one pictured above, passed me and belched out a horrific plume of thick, black smoke from the top. The plume was at least 5 times as big and thick as the picture above. I almost pulled off the road, but there was no escaping, so I ducked my body over my handlebars and held my breath until I made it through the other side. The truck continued hurtling from block to block, releasing a disgusting plume of smoke as it accelerated from each stop sign, before mercifully turning onto another street. Surely, this truck would never pass a city inspection, but nevertheless it was out there on the road, spewing its disgustingness around.

This incident, although rare, was troubling. I hate to think how much pollution I breathe in while cycling through the city. I often say that I love cycling because it’s a chance to get out in the “fresh air,” but I shouldn’t kid myself: the air is not so fresh in Chicago. That is a depressing fact.

I am not sure what to do or say about this problem. Complaining about trucks in general would be hypocritical, since they carry food to my grocery store, deliver my packages, sweep my streets and remove my garbage. Living in the Bike Lane wrote about this problem last year and offered some solutions for both individuals and cities.

What have your experiences with air pollution been? I’m especially interested to read the responses of the country mice versus the city mice.

Hopefully, air pollution will not progress to the point where bicyclists feel the need to don surgical masks, as they do in other countries.

{Image courtesy of Tom Krymkowski via Flickr}

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52 thoughts on “Air Pollution and Bicycling

  1. dukiebiddle says:

    I’m a city mouse, and I have to say it doesn’t bother me. The experiences like the one you described above are so few and far between they don’t influence my cycling decisions. I’d get exhaust blast as a pedestrian too. Surgical masks don’t do anything. They’re good for germs because the wearers can’t touch their mouth/nose, but for eliminating toxins a wearer would need a respirator. Don’t get me wrong supporting emission policies that reduce smog and urban toxins, I just don’t believe that as cyclists these issues are any greater a concern for us. Nor do I view realistic bicycle modal goals a significant answer to industrial and vehicle emissions.

    • dukiebiddle says:

      “Don’t get me wrong I supporting

      • Timoohz says:

        The traffic is not really causing much pollution problems for cyclists in my home town. Oulu is not very big, there’s lots of green areas and the wind from the sea will clean the air. The segregated bikeways (MUPs) mean there’s at least some distance between cars and people using their lungs.

        But there’s some dust in the air in the spring. In the winter, there’s practically no dust as everything is frozen and covered by snow. When the snow melts the dust created by studded car tyres ripping the asphalt and the gritting sand on the bikeways and sidewalks dries, all dust created during the winter gets loose. (Just slightly exaggerating :-)

        The street sweeping machines will clear the gritting sand away to be reused, and a few showers of rain clean the rest.

  2. Sue says:

    This is a great topic and it’s something that I come across as well every now and then and worry about. I find myself holding my breath whenever a truck goes by. I do this when I run too. I try to pedal as fast as I can to get away and then breath. Though I’m sure I’m still inhaling something. Luckily the air here in my little city is not that polluted.

  3. Stephen says:

    I’m a city mouse in the sweet, sunny south. Our issue lately has been pollen–clouds of it. And in our normally relatively rainy climate, when it gets dry, dust is an issue. And it has been quite dry lately.

    However, I’ve been spared serious air pollution. Dirty vehicles happen from time to time–the daily insults include the big diesel pickups favored by contractors and young men who would be (and should be) otherwise on the front lines of Afghanistan fighting for the oil they burn daily driving around town.

    The worst are the big industrial vehicles like the one you mention, but they are relatively rare in commuter traffic. I don’t worry so much about soot as much as I worry about gasoline odors and NOx fumes.

    The good news is that we still have the old grid system of roadways downtown which I use to escape the crowded arterial roads. That makes a huge difference.

    Maybe the rate of intake of pollution particles is offset by our higher metabolic rates? Any research on that?

  4. I think I remember the difference being car drivers breath very shallow and pollution levels build up inside a car over time. When riding a bike, people usually breathe much more heavily. So the hazardous particles are forcefully expelled from the lungs and there is no box for them to hang around in.

    • breathe* not breath. :)

    • Yru Redhead says:

      Actually, the issue is more that cyclists (and joggers) potentially breathe particles in deeper to their lungs – where they potentially cause more damage than if they were only inhaled lightly into the top of the lungs… but the flipside is that you have much better other health outcomes – like heart and healthy weight etc so… I think the benefits still outweigh the risks unless you are unlucky enough to be riding heavily in the thickest of pollution all the time..

      • dukiebiddle says:

        Now is that truly the issue, or is that the unsupported hypothesis?

        I’d be much more interested in looking at the lifespan data of frequent cyclists and joggers and compare that people with lifelong sedentary lifestyles. Heck, I’d be interested in looking at the cancer rates for frequent cyclists and joggers and compare that to general population figures. I suspect the data would show no significant concern.

        • ggustafs says:

          As the May Clinic article linked below states, “During aerobic activity — even low-intensity activity — you may breathe as much as 10 times more air than you do when at rest. You’re also likely to draw air more deeply into your lungs and breathe mostly through your mouth, bypassing your filtering nasal passages. These factors work together to increase your contact with pollutants, making air pollution and exercise a potentially risky combination.”

          • dukiebiddle says:

            Are cyclists and joggers exhibiting a higher rate of cancer and/or lung disease as a result? If not, the fact that cyclists and joggers breathe in more toxic air may not be relevant.

          • dukiebiddle says:

            Okay, so I just read the article, which suggest rather broadly that air toxins from pollution increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes in older women and an increased risk from lung cancer or cardiovascular disease. What it doesn’t say is how much greater a risk people who jog or cycle are exposing themselves to than the general population. Is it a 90% greater risk, or .09%? I need more telling data before I’m not willing to write this off as Culture of Fear applied to air pollution and exercise.

  5. The exercise you get is ten times more important than the pollution issue. See study below.

    Having said that, it helps to wash my hands and face when there’s a lot of pollen or dust in the air.

    Do the Health Benefits of Cycling Outweigh the Risks?

  6. Dottie says:

    To be clear, I’m in no way saying that pollution should dissuade people from bicycling or that the risk of pollution outweighs the rewards of cycling, but pollution is a problem that needs to be addressed.

    • dukiebiddle says:

      Broadly, I suspect the overwhelming majority would agree that air pollution is a problem that should be addressed. The question is what compromises do people think are necessary and/or justifiable to combat air pollution? Should we require higher emission standards? For vehicles and/or for industry? Do we pressure our cities to strictly enforce obvious emission violations, like the one you describe above, or is the economic cost too great to society at large? Would the solution have a greater societal cost than accepting the status quo? Should we accept a middle ground solutions that sets modest and achievable goals while minimizing economic damage?

  7. neighbourtease says:

    I think about this a lot, especially when I’m riding above idling cars and trucks on the Williamsburg bridge. I’m more exerted than usual because of the steep incline of the bridge and it just feels heinous to be inhaling that stuff.

  8. Michael says:

    It’s a problem for sure, and one that I don’t think is discussed at the transportation planning or design level. A professor (I am a grad student) earlier this semester discussed how poor the air quality is along major streets and that it’s a really bad idea to jog on them if you don’t have to. The air quality improves dramatically as little as 50′ away, although he admitted cyclists can’t really get around this.

    I think this suggests two strategies: one, to focus on separated bike lanes/cycle tracks along major streets since they allow cyclists to comfortably slow their pace and thus breathing rate; and two, to focus bikeway networks along neighborhood/minor streets and away from heavy traffic when possible. In any case, its something that engineers and planners need to keep in mind.

    Personally, I hate breathing in (the obvious) fumes and do the hold my breath thing too. Even getting behind natural gas buses is terrible. Thanks for highlighting this!

  9. michaelor says:

    i don’t think you are being hypocritical to complain about pollution belching from cars and trucks or any other pollution source for that matter. In fact, I think there isn’t enough complaining about it. Its your body. We should be complaining when we are left with no choice but accept a situation that forces us to take toxins into our bodies. You didn’t make the ridiculous policy decisions that put us in this disgusting mess and you have every right to complain about it and not feel like a hypocrite. Cheers.

    • Thom says:

      When things suck, we need to take some action even if it’s only complaining on a blog.
      Isn’t this how change gets going?
      The idea that someone thinks they have a right to spew toxic waste into clean air we all breathe just baffles me.
      The idea that some want to eliminate the E.P.A.
      appalls me.

  10. Michael says:

    That’s a helpful link, but I’ll point out that pollution levels are highest at night because surface temperatures cool. Conversely, higher temperatures lead to increased vehicle emissions, which is where the midday to afternoon warning is coming from.

  11. Jack says:

    I was just having this thought yesterday as I rode to work.

    However, living in Seattle, I was wondering if my body is more likely or less likely to absorb any radioactive particles that come over from Japan.

    We have been told these particles would be severely “diluted” but if I’m huffing and puffing, does it increase the amount of particles I take in?

    I guess I’ll find out in 5 years or so.

    Cross your fingers!

  12. Chris says:

    What I don’t understand is your statement that trucks are necessary to ” carry food to my grocery store, deliver my packages, sweep my streets and remove my garbage.” Where is it written that it is OK for these trucks to spew out clouds of black exhaust? Have we all just given up in demanding that something be done to correct it? We have surrendered our cities to the automobile and as a result suffer because of it. And little seems to get done because of the auto and oil lobby who control policy in Washington, Springfield, Cook County, and Chicago.

    • Dottie says:

      I agree. I did not say the trucks are necessary to do those things, only that the trucks do those things – a statement of fact.

    • David says:

      Chris, how would you sweep the streets and collect the garbage and recycling by other means? How would you transport food and other goods insterstate, or from rail hubs to stores and warehouses?


      • Chris says:

        You would have to redesign cities. Goods would be transported to a hub outside the city and then distributed using electric vehicles. There is NO reason for semi-sized trucks being in a city or town. Look, it comes down to a quality of life issue. If there’s the will, options are available. But, most people have no idea what to do because they have been brainwashed by the auto industry to believe that motorized transportation is the only way.

        • Dottie says:

          I love this idea! Makes so much sense to me. Citizens could get on board by explaining to them how much this would improve the conditions of their city roads and save money on repairs. Big trucks do so much damage to the asphalt.

          • Carolyn I. says:

            Trucks wrecking our streets is a big concern here in Prince George. Each year the roads are getting worse and worse and there is only so much fixing the City can do at a time. The truck drivers are allowed to park their big rigs at their houses!

            Pollution is bad here too, there are pulpmills, an oil refinery, smoke from chimneys, dust in the air and smokey vehicles too. (blegh) I can’t imagine what I’m breathing into my lungs. On a similar note, I’ve heard that biking fast and breathing hard while biking in -20 celcius (32 f) or colder is hard on one’s lungs too.

  13. donna says:

    I often ponder the same thing on my morning commute by Toronto’s waterfront. Our “lakeshore” bike trail is not as close to the water as yours. Ours runs alongside 6 lanes of traffic leading to an expressway, a sewer treatment plant, lots of factories, etc.

  14. Stephen says:

    I’m a planner trying to help design and implement a system of bike routes. While not trying at this time to explicitly avoid arterial roadways to minimize exposure to air pollutants, one side effect of helping steer bicyclists to more quiet side streets would obviously be to expose them less to such toxins.

    The larger issues having to do with choice of fuels, economies of scale (requiring trucks), the political power of the trucking industry, etc. are important but outside the scope of what I’m trying to do–provide an additional transportation choice!

  15. Megs says:

    Ok be forewarned – I have a kind of gross comment. Last year I did the LATE bike ride in Chicago with some friends. Your going pretty slow and I spent a few hours on my bike downtown in the middle of the night – even though there wasn’t really any traffic at that time and streets were closed off.
    The next day myself and most of my friends had black – literally black – boogers for a day or 2. Now THAT is pollution for ya!
    btw – I don’t recommend the LATE ride.

  16. cycler says:

    I remember when I lived in Italy, I was talking to a co-worker at a party, and he said “I would never ride in Milan, the air pollution is so bad for you”, Then he took another drag on his cigarette. Ok then.

    I wonder what can be done to remove trucks (or cars) from the road that are obviously not compliant with clean air regs- can you call the smog police and get them fined? I presume that delivery trucks are held to some kind of standard the vehicle is inspected and re-registered?

    I thought it was interesting that the car talk guys recently changed their tune when talking to people who were burning oil. Previously they’d said, well, just buy the oil by the crate, and fill it up, it’s cheaper than getting an engine rebuild. Recently they’ve started saying- you should consider the damage you’re doing to the environment when you drive around with a poorly operating engine.

  17. Courtney says:

    pollution does suck, especially here in chicago. the big trucks, buses, etc. i hate breathing in things that affect my breathing while riding and such

    • Karen says:

      I agree that you aren’t hypocritical to complain. It spurs the question “Is this the best we can do?”. I also agree that evnough people aren’t complaining.

      Yesterday I got into a discussion with someone who frequently claims that the EPA has done nothing to improve the quality/health of our environment – a claim I find completely insane. He went on to say that anything that EPA does enforce should come down to a cost benefit analysis. My question to him was “cost to whom/benefit to whom”. EPA likely does have to examine regulations from a cost benefit analysis anyway but it seems to me the burden is more likely to fall upon the citizen and the environment rather than the sources of pullutions (aka, the wheels of commerce). I question the notion that citizens, armed with facts and an understanding of the long-term consequences of vehicles spewing pollutants that could be otherwise more safely controlled, are not willing to do things differently, even if it means paying a little more for things or “enduring” a little bit of inconvenience.

  18. Luke Wilson says:

    Diesel trucks that give off all that black “smoke” aren’t required in most states to have catalytic converters. Here in Upstate New York thats what kids are driving; souped up turbocharged diesels, since the turbocharger requires the exhaust to be expelled at a high rate, most of these trucks don’t even have mufflers.
    Diesels are more efficient this way, a lot of that “smoke” is actually solids.
    There is definitely something that can be done to reduce the emissions on these with out affecting performance terribly.

  19. ladyfleur says:

    In my area, it’s easy to report vehicles with excessive exhaust: 1-800-EXHAUST.
    They refer to them as “smoking vehicles” and the program’s tagline is “Help someone quit smoking” which I think is awesome.

  20. Maureen says:

    It is a really sad state of affairs when you have to feel uncomfortable being outside, doing something seemingly healthy. Rather ironic. It reminds me of a Chris Van Allsburg picture book, where trees are being cut down to make tooth picks…I live in the suburbs, near enough to NYC, and congested streets in my area, but have lots of trees and parks too. I don’t like riding in congested areas more because the traffic makes me a little nervous, and just the smell of exhaust is not pleasurable – but I haven’t had an experience like your truck…YUCK!

  21. Jim says:

    Too bad about the Chicago air. That alone would prompt me to move.

    You could always wear an air filtration mask, just a simple paper one, for the worst smog days. Sure you’re in the Midwest and people can be narrow about these things, but they’re your lungs.

    People in Beijing have been doing this since their industrial revolution, which continues.

    • David says:

      The air in Chicago really isn’t that bad in global terms. I can still remember how bad the air felt the last time I was in, say, Caracas. I could feel the vague sting as I inhaled. Uck! Or, more recently, Bangalore. EPA regulations over the last 40 years have really done a lot in this country.


  22. sarah says:

    this is the topic of my senior thesis project! we’re doing a small study comparing cyclist exposures to air pollutants on main roads and residential streets. so far there has been a noticeable difference between high and low traffic routes.

    not that i needed another reason to hate being stuck next to buses or trucks!

  23. Eric says:

    yeah, exhaust in your face at 6am isnt always the best way to wake up, but I rather be on the bike with the fumes than stuck in a cage :) impossible to get away from it while commuting through the city unfortunately.

  24. David says:


    Breathing in a big cloud of heavy-truck exhaust is, indeed, the pits. I tend to hold my breath, too, when I have to pass through a cloud of particulate exhaust.

    I’ll point out that the city does not regulate the exhaust emissions of trucks or any other vehicles – the EPA (on the federal level) does that, and individual states (most notably CA) may do so also.

    But, while the city cannot directly regulate the output of private vehicles, if nothing else it has put a lot of work in recent years into reducing the emissions of its own light-vehicle and heavy-truck fleet. Hundreds (I don’t have the exact number handy, though I can look it up) of its own trucks are now equipped with idle shut-down devices, and it has been beginning to take delivery of hybrid trucks that allow equipment to be run without using the main engine. Also, everything it buys has to meet 2011 EPA standards, which do not allow the amount of soot that you had to bathe in.

    It’s a start, and it’s something, anyway.


    • Step-Through says:

      The short answer is that you are probably exposed to less air pollution on your bike than you would be in a car, or even on a bus or train. Basically, those are ‘indoor’ environments and pollutant accumulate inside them while they are operating on the road. Cyclists are generally in a much cleaner micro-environment, except for those moments when they are close to a dirty vehicle like the truck you describe. We do take in a little more air because we are breathing more heavily than a driver, but our personal exposure is still much, much less. You can take some steps to protect yourself by avoiding high-traffic roads and trucks. In the greater scheme of things, as other commenters have stated, we need to focus on alternate methods of goods movement in cities and cleaner methods of powering the vehicles that we have to have.

  25. Eco Mama says:

    great post dottie and love the betty foy.
    Eco mama

  26. george says:

    Great post. I often think about all the malevolent particulates punching and kicking all the good little cells in my body.

    What I don’t understand, is why all vehicles are not required to either:

    a)have their exhaust pipe point away from
    the sidewalk.
    b)have the exhaust pipe point straight up,
    by snaking through the body of the car.

    As far as transportation of goods is concerned, I cannot see how it would be any less efficient to use rail, and then to micro distribution sites or something along this idea.

    It’s frustrating because the idea of enormous central warehouses seems inextricably linked with how transportation of goods should occur.

  27. Jim says:

    It’s well known denizens in neighborhoods directly below heavily trucked and trafficed urban freeways have a much higher incidence of emphysema, asthma and cancer.

    These are, of course, the poorer areas of town. There’s a movement afoot to tear down underutilized urban freeways. Doing so would guarantee a better prognosis for the kids born subsequently, both due to the obvious health benefits and the inevitable greening of the landscape. Beneficial physically and psychologically.

    A win-win, I think.

  28. […] some serious protective devices if you’re planning to ride up there. And the next time you’re stuck behind a bus sucking diesel fumes, you’ll wish you had new First Defense Nasal Screenstm. Wonder if they’d keep my wife from […]

  29. Kim says:

    Are cyclists at greater risk from air pollution?
    Well the research evidence suggests not, at the end of the day the benefits of riding a bicycle out weigh the risks by about 20:1. Ride on!

  30. Redeyedtreefr0g says:

    I never really thought much about car/truck fumes on my bike before. I would ride in a circle of varying distance (gradually growing!) from the bus office and back when I got my bicycle in February for my birthday. My husband and I shared a car and he had it all day. I would ride along the major roads in my outings without much thought.

    But, on the very first day of school this year, the first day of my bicycle commuting, the air was thick with the exhaust fumes of buses. At the top of a big hill no less (which I successfully rode up!). I was not exactly happy with the thought of greeting that every morning, but luckily I only catch the fumes in very still winds, which has only happened one other morning. I attribute the first day to drivers arriving early.

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