Cyclists get fewer fumes

This article was published in 1998, in Newsletter 16.

When I first started cycling many years ago, I read Richard’s Bicycle Book. In it he speculated that cyclists might suffer less than people in cars from pollution from motor vehicles. This was, he argued, because cyclists were exercising and therefore clearing pollutants out of their system more quickly.

Now, official research has shown that pedestrians and cyclists do indeed suffer less from pollution, though not particularly for the reason Richard Ballantyne thought. It’s more that car drivers are positioned perfectly on the road to suck on the exhaust pipe of the car in front.

The report says that car drivers essentially travel in a ‘tunnel’ of air pollutants. The factors that make levels of ‘volatile organic compounds’ and carbon monoxide in cars worse are dense, slow moving traffic, stable air, increased vehicle age, and faulty exhaust systems. Typical urban rush hour conditions tend to produce the highest in-car concentrations of these pollutants. In-vehicle levels of nitrogen oxides seem to be worse during motorway driving. Pedestrians and cyclists who travel by the side of the road avoid much of this. Those who travel in buses are also better off then car users.

Transport Minister, Dr Gavin Strang, was quoted as saying: ‘In-car air quality is yet another reason to get out of our cars and to make more journeys on foot or by bike. We may feel insulated from the world in our cars but these findings show we are … breathing in fumes from the car in front.’

Dave Earl