Space & Innovation

Urban Cyclists: Don't Breathe on Busy Roads

Commuting cyclists should find alternates to busy streets if they want to protect their lungs from volatile organic compounds.

Next time you pedal to work instead of driving or hopping on the subway, you might want to pick a longer route. Cycling on congested city streets or suburban thoroughfares -- even if faster -- boosts the amount of toxic chemicals absorbed by your body, according to a new study.

The study's authors are careful not to discourage urban cycling. Instead they suggest choosing routes away from busy traffic or industrial areas.

"It is still better to be bicycling to get the health benefits from physical activity, even with the amount of (air pollution) exposure," said Alex Bigazzi, professor of civil engineering at University of British Columbia in Vancouver. "However it is useful to know that your body levels of toxicants will be lower if you can chose a lower traffic route. You might have to go a little out of your way to do that."

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Bigazzi and colleagues at Portland State University used special breath analysis devices on three cyclists riding the streets of Portland for 20 to 30 minutes daily. After compensating for ambient pollution levels, the cyclists rode through heavy traffic, light traffic and side streets or bike paths. Not only was the exposure two or three times greater for the cyclists on the busy roads, so too was biological uptake of volatile organic compounds, the kind spewed out by cars and trucks.

To estimate how these chemicals were getting into the subjects' bloodstream, Bigazzi used biomarkers of the compounds found in the subjects' breath. The study was published recently in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Even though Portland is a relatively clean place (all that rain) and has embraced bike culture more than most American cities, Bigazzi said the chemicals were worrisome.

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"We are not exceeding (federal workplace health) standards, but they were high enough to see some negative impacts for repeated exposures," Bigazzi said.

The Portland study backs up similar results from a 2012 experiment in London. That study tested for particulate matter, tiny bits of carbon, dust and soot spawned by the combustion process that become lodged in the airways and can lead to asthma, heart attacks, stroke and other health effects.

"Exercising along heavily polluted roads will give you a higher dose of pollution," said Jonathan Grigg, professor of pediatric respiratory medicine and Queen Mary University of London. "But everyone should have a right to be in an area where you are not going to have that effect. We think it is good for you, if you chose to cycle. It should be your government to allow you to do that and not get exposed to a higher level of pollution."

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Grigg's study measured carbon particles directly that become lodged in white blood cells coughed up from the cyclists lungs. His study compared 14 cyclists to 14 subjects who walked to work or took public transit.

Grigg said the Portland study is "interesting preliminary data" but needs to be expanded and use a more direct form of measuring pollution uptake by the body.

Janice Nolen, vice president for national policy at the American Lung Association, says that it's not only cyclists that are harmed by air pollution. So, too, are people who live near busy highways.

Passenger vehicles will get cleaner in 2017 model year, "but there are still a lot of them out there that are high polluters, diesel especially," Nolen said.

A 2013 study by MIT found air pollution causes about 200,000 early deaths in the United States each year. Emissions from road transportation are the most significant contributor, causing 53,000 premature deaths, followed closely by power generation, with 52,000.

"There's a lot of ways besides biking that you can get exposed to these high levels of pollution," Nolen added.

This week across the country, communities are celebrating bicycling with Bike to Work Week. In New York City, the bikes in the Citibank bike share program were free for a day, a bike parade will roll through town in Flagstaff, Ariz., and in Indianapolis local officials are hosting a bike breakfast and blessing of the bikes. Data from the National Household Travel survey shows that the number of bike commuters has risen 62 percent nationwide from 2000 to 2013. That percentage is even higher in communities that have created bicycle-friendly lanes and parking. Today, most adults and older children can ride a bike. But it wasn't always that way. It took advances in the bicycle's design to make the two-wheeled mode of travel user-friendly.

Exactly who invented the first bicycle remains a mystery, according to the

Smithsonian's "America on the Move"

exhibit documenting the history of travel in the United States. But among the earliest incarnations of the bicycle was this kind of model -- a large front wheel capable of being steered. Early versions were first patented in Paris in 1818. They became known as vélocipèdes. The vélocipède became popular in France and England. Soon the big-wheeled bikes could be commonly seen on the streets of London, according to the Smithsonian. But by the early 1820s, the popularity of vélocipèdes declined. This photo shows a cyclist, A.S. Wieners, and his racing bicycle in 1887. Wieners used it in racing events held by the Manhattan Athletic Club.

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In 1863, an important innovation would bring back the popularity of the vélocipède, which would soon become known as the bicycle. Pedals were added to the front axle.

According to the Smithsonian

, this happened in the Paris workshop of Pierre Michaux. One of Michaux's employees, Pierre Lallement subsequently moved to New Haven, Conn., where he continued work to improve the vélocipède. The Hanlon brothers of New York City, a popular team of traveling acrobats, patented this 1869 model.

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By the late 1860s, Americans were showing great interest in the vélocipède. According to the Smithsonian, many carriage makers began creating models and riding workshops started opening up in eastern cities. The sport especially became popular among students at Harvard and Yale. But, as in Europe, that popularity would fade likely because the models then were difficult to ride. Riders had to steer and pedal the same front wheel. The bikes were heavy and taking a spill off of the vélocipède could be painful. Shown is an early group of cyclists using special rail attachments to ride on a spur line of the Pittsburgh and Western Railroad, between Cluffs Mills and McCrays, Penn., in the 1890s.

Another innovation was seen with the introduction of the so-called "Ordinary" in the 1870s. These were high-wheeled bicycles and tricycles developed in England with wire-spoked wheels. Albert A. Pope became the first American bicycle manufacturer when, in 1878, he began manufacturing bicycles under the trade name "Columbia" in Connecticut. Shown is an early Columbia bike model.

Shown here are participants in one of the first organized bicycle tours in America. They are posing with their Ordinaries on a road outside Readville, Mass. on Sept. 11, 1879. The Ordinary was lighter weight and fast, but remained hazardous to the less experienced. Innovators began to look into ways to make bicycles safer, leading to the development of the "Safety" bicycle.

The Safety bicycle featured two, smaller wheels propelled by a chain connected to the pedals. Some versions featured gears, making navigating hills easier. Brakes were also improved and air-filled tires made for a smoother ride. The changes proved a boon and Americans took to two wheels like never before. This version of a man's Cleveland Safety bicycle is shown in a 1899 photo.

The number of bicycles in use boomed as production rose from an estimated 200,000 bicycles in 1889 to 1,000,000 in 1899, according to the Smithsonian. This diamond- and emerald-encrusted bike, shown in this 1896 photo, was owned by M.N. Wiley and featured an oil lamp for nighttime riding.

By 1899, as the Smithsonian notes, not many automobiles had yet been built, horses and carriages were expensive to maintain in crowded cities, and urban public transportation was often slow and inadequate. The bicycle became a popular way of getting around. It was the bicycle's hey day -- as illustrated by this 1897 cover of sheet music featuring a woman cyclist. The popularity would last until automobiles came onto the scene in earnest after 1910.

Although the bicycle's popularity in the United States would decline with the growing popularity of cars, bicycles would remain popular in Europe and, in the United States, they would become popular among children. Advances, meanwhile, continued to make bikes more comfortable and faster. This version, bought in 1935 in Germany, features a rear-wheel hub and a coaster brake inscribed "Torpedo-System Sachs."

Among the major U.S. bicycle companies was the Schwinn Bicycle Company, founded by German-born mechanical engineer Ignaz Schwinn (1860–1945) in Chicago in 1895. Schwinn became the dominant manufacturer of American bicycles through most of the 20th century. (The company declared bankruptcy in 1992 and became a sub-brand of Pacific Cycle). This Schwinn bicycle, built in 1953, was known as the Panther.

The popularity of bikes among children led to various innovations suitable for the smaller set. Who could forget the beloved banana seat bike? This model, the Schwinn Super Deluxe Sting-Ray, was made in 1965.

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Along with bike innovation came helmet innovation since head injuries were -- and remain -- a constant concern for cyclists. In 1975, Bell Helmets Inc. manufactured some of the first effective cycling helmets. They were made with a polystyrene foam liner covered by a hard plastic shell.

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Innovations continue to make bicycles faster, more versatile and adjustable. Among the latest models today are the rocket bike (shown), which can hit speeds of 207 miles per hour, a solar-powered e-bike with a 40-mile range, and a "smart" bike that warns its rider of dangers ahead with an array of electronic devices. Cycling is experiencing growing popularity as cities, in an effort to green up, are encouraging cyclists by creating bike lanes and bike-share programs. According to a 2014 U.S. Census Bureau survey, Portland, Ore. holds the current record for cycling commuters, with 6.1 percent of commuters saying they bike to work.

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