Bicycling and the environment
With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing people around the world to stay home and practice social distancing, we might all be feeling a little bit cooped up and stressed out. For those of us who are well, bicycling can still be a way to de-stress and get necessary physical activity. So, over the next few days, Bicycle Colorado will be putting out a short series of articles on how bicycling is still a great way to keep ourselves happy and healthy. The information in these articles applies every day, but even more so in these weeks to come.
Today, we’re talking about how bicycling can help all of us maintain and improve our air quality. We discussed bicycling’s benefits for your physical health on Monday, and its benefits for your mental health on Tuesday.
Here at Bicycle Colorado, we are fans of bicycling for a whole host of reasons, including recreation, transportation, competition, fitness and more. The fact that bicycling is a way to do all of those things without emitting pollutants is just the icing on the cake. In our third installment in our series on bicycling and health, we’re talking about how bicycling is healthy for you and for the environment.
Bicycling is generally pretty simple: put some food in a human, put them on a long-lasting machine powered by them or by a small amount of electricity (e-bikes!) and you have a highly efficient mode of transportation that doesn’t use gasoline and doesn’t pollute our air. In times like these, when many people are either not working or are working from home due to the COVID-19 outbreak, bicycling can be a way to transport goods and services while getting exercise, in a way that doesn’t harm the air we breathe.
During the course of this outbreak, in what Smart Cities Dive called “the thinnest of silver linings,” we have seen air quality in several regions of the world improve. That’s due in part to the fact that fewer people are out commuting by car. While the context for this is terrible—and relying on people to isolate themselves and not work just to reduce air pollution is neither feasible nor desirable—it points to possibilities. What if more of us decided to bike to work or to the post office or the restaurant more often instead of driving? And what if we kept doing this even when concerns about the coronavirus are, excuse the driving metaphor, in the rearview mirror?
Studies have shown that biking regardless of air quality can still give your body a boost (provided you are a healthy individual without lung or heart conditions). In our story on bicycling and physical health, we noted that riding a bike reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, which can include heart attacks and other conditions. A study in the Journal of the American Heart Association in 2018 found that these benefits were not reduced when participants were exposed to high levels of air pollution. So, while it is ideal not to bicycle on days or times when the air quality is especially bad, it is actually better for you to bike overall.
If you’re worried about still breathing in pollutants when you bike, it turns out you’re still breathing fewer polluting particles than drivers. In an experiment, the BBC asked families to drive, walk and ride bikes along the same route to school in the northern England city of Sheffield (population: 582,000). The study showed that it was drivers who inhaled the highest levels of PM2.5, fine atmospheric particulate matter that can damage the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Here’s where the number of motor vehicles and the quality of infrastructure come in—in cities, at least, reducing the number of motor vehicles on the roads and creating protected bicycle tracks and lanes will help keep bicyclists separate from people driving cars and trucks, further reducing the amount of particulates that folks on bikes inhale.
Wherever you live, there are ways for you to replace a car trip with a bike trip. In suburban and rural parts of Colorado, it might be difficult for some folks to get to work or the store without driving and, especially these days, we’re not encouraging you to push yourself too hard and risk illness or injury. It’s still a great time of year to bike for fun instead of driving out to a trail or taking a road trip, though! And maybe there is an essential service within a few miles (or even blocks) from you that you can still ride to, like the post office or the grocery store. We hope you’ll try it out!
And we hope you will take your kids along for the ride, too. We can all set a good example for the children in our lives by showing them that bicycling can be both a great way to have fun and a way to get to school or to our friends’ houses. Like we suggested in our article on bicycling and mental health, now could be a good time to get your kids out of the house and discover new routes to school or other locations using your bikes. When school is back in session, a safe bike route can expose them to less air pollution than their classmates in cars and the more kids bike or walk to school, the fewer drivers sit tempted to idle in front of the school as they wait to drop off or pick up their children. Plus, fewer drivers and cars mean an increased sense of safety around school, potentially motivating others to try traveling by bike. Our community and our kids deserve fresh, clean air to breathe, and engaging them in more active transportation can help them contribute to a cleaner environment and set an example for other friends and families!
When things settle down, Bicycle Colorado wants bicycling to still be the top choice for Coloradans to get around and to recreate. We know that reducing air pollution, building better infrastructure and providing feasible options to get around other than driving go hand-in-hand. More people will bike if drivers are encouraged to go slower and if bicyclists can have a safe and separate part of the road or their own trails. You can help us make Colorado a better place to bike by choosing the healthiest, most efficient and greenest way to get around and by advocating for safer infrastructure, too!