Leave the Car, Take the Bike: Cycling Is Better for Your Health—and the Environment

The cost to the environment and to people's health isn't fully reflected in the price we pay to drive.

Photo Credit: connel/Shutterstock

The following excerpt is from How Cycling Can Save the World by Peter Walker. © 2017 by Peter Walker. TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, isn’t known for being the most radical of groups. A confederation of thirty-four of the wealthiest nations on the planet, it’s based mainly around free markets and international trade. But at a conference in Leipzig, Germany, the OECD’s secretary-general made a fairly startling remark about transport and equality.

“Right now, drivers pay to enjoy mobility,” said Angel Gurría, a Mexican economist. “But the cost to the environment and to people’s health isn’t fully reflected in the price we pay to drive.” If you’re a motorist, this might sound like pretty radical stuff: driving, worldwide, needs to be disincentivized by being made more expensive. But Gurría was absolutely right. He was talking about the global blight of vehicle-related pollution.

It’s an indicator of the sheer, unimaginable human toll from the global dominance of motorized transport that even this third-most-lethal side effect—after physical inactivity and crashes—possibly kills about a million people a year around the world. When I say “possibly,” that’s not me fudging the facts. It’s just that even the experts don’t really know.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 3.7 million people a year die early from outdoor air pollution—but this includes all sources, including industry, power stations, and smog from people burning domestic fuels. These all mingle together, along with pollutants blown in from other countries, and separating the individual health hazards is difficult. One 2012 study from the UK, however, estimated that emissions from road transport contributes to about 40 percent of air pollution deaths.

Much of this is down to especially fine particles, known technically as PM2.5s, as they’re smaller than 2.5 micrometres, or 0.00025cm. These are the exhaust nasties that really affect people’s health, proving especially deadly to children, the young, or those with existing heart or lung conditions. According to Dr. Gary Fuller, an expert on air quality at King’s College (part of the University of London) about a quarter of PM2.5-related air pollution deaths in a big city might be caused by vehicle smog. You also need to factor in nitrogen dioxide, the pollutant at the center of the Volkswagen emissions test-fixing scandal, which affects people in a similar way.

Nitrogen dioxide is, Fuller says, “the game changer for this type of calculation,” given that even now the WHO is trying to calculate how many deaths it causes. However, he predicts, this work could double pollution mortality estimates. So, all in all, saying “a million people a year” is probably an underestimate.

Around half of all pollution-related deaths worldwide take place in India and China. WHO data shows India now has sixteen of the world’s thirty cities with the highest concentrations of PM2.5s. China, which has improved slightly in recent years, had five. As with traffic deaths, poorer nations see a predominance of pollution problems despite owning fewer vehicles overall. The same pattern also exists within cities. In Delhi, perhaps the most polluted major city in the world, census figures show just 21 percent of households own a motor vehicle.

Similar inequalities over pollution exist even in richer countries. In 2002, a pair of academics from the University of Leeds undertook what they believed was the first UK study of the “potential environmental injustice” of vehicle smog. Their findings were striking. “The communities that have access to fewest cars tend to suffer from the highest levels of air pollution, whereas those in which car ownership is greatest enjoy the cleanest air,” they wrote. “Pollution is most concentrated in areas where young children and their parents are more likely to live. Those communities that are most polluted and which also emit the least pollution tend to be amongst the poorest in Britain.”

Little has changed. In 2013 the Greater London Authority commissioned (but did not initially publish) a report into pollution around schools. It found that European Union limits for nitrogen dioxide levels were exceeded outside 433 junior schools. Of these, 83 percent were in economically deprived areas.

Cyclists, of course, similarly emit no fumes but are on the front line of breathing them, something that, as an asthmatic, I take fairly personally. The one slightly good bit of news is that there is some evidence that being on a bike exposes you to lower levels of pollutants than you might think. In 2014 one of Gary Fuller’s colleagues at King’s College, Ben Barratt, attached instruments measuring exposure to black carbon, yet another pollutant associated with diesel fumes, to an ambulance driver, a cycle messenger, a young child, a retired person, an office worker, and a school student. They were also given GPS trackers and sent off for the same twenty-four-hour period. The cycle messenger ended up with the second-lowest reading of the group. Barratt said the ventilation from riding a bike might dissipate fumes, which tend to concentrate in a vehicle—the ambulance driver saw the highest exposure levels. There is also an argument that in congested cities, cycling can be quicker and allows you to use smaller side streets, further limiting your smog exposure.

Sadly, there’s a compensating factor—on a bike you tend to breathe more heavily, and thus ingest a greater proportion of what you’re exposed to. This high respiration rate means that, overall, cyclists tend to absorb more pollutants than drivers, according to Dr. Audrey de Nazelle, an expert in air pollution at Imperial College London. However, she stresses, the benefits of physical activity still massively outweigh the risks, barring “very extreme conditions” such as cycling for a long period on a smoggy day in somewhere like Delhi.

The obvious point is that if you replace many thousands of car journeys in a city with bike trips, pollution levels fall. Some cities have begun to take emergency action to reduce smog. For example, Paris introduced emergency antismog rules to allow only cars with odd or even car registration numbers on alternate days, and now has a monthly ban on all cars in parts of the center. One of the first actions of London’s new mayor, Sadiq Khan, upon being elected was to double the size of a zone within which particularly polluting vehicles must pay a charge, calling the city’s air “our biggest environmental challenge.”

De Nazelle believes the urgency of the air pollution crisis makes it inevitable that others will follow. “I’m convinced that years from now we’re going to look back at our age and think, wow, what were these people thinking?” she says. “We’re going to look like we were living in Neanderthal conditions. It’s not acceptable that we’re exposed to the fumes we’re living in right now. People are starting to recognize this.”

Saving the World

So far we’ve looked at how more cycling can improve equality connected to gender, age, culture, and income disparities, and the terrible death toll from vehicle pollution. But there’s yet another social justice benefit that could arguably be seen as bigger than all these combined: helping to save the planet.

Global warming is too big, nuanced, and contentious an issue to cover comprehensively in one section of a single chapter of a general interest book about cycling. When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its last report, the summary alone ran to sixty pages. But the importance of the issue is almost beyond overstatement. And, yet again, those currently suffering most acutely from the effects of a changing climate are, in general, those contributing least to the process. It’s places like the Philippines, Bangladesh, and the Maldives, which emit tiny amounts of greenhouse gases per head of population compared to industrialized countries, but are bearing the brunt of ever-more-powerful typhoons and rising sea levels. For example, per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the Philippines are about 5 percent of what the average American produces, and yet the country has faced five of its ten most powerful typhoons in the postwar era since 2006.

What can cycling do? It’s not going to change everything. But a surprising amount of good would happen if, overnight, every government in the world decided to build lots of bike lanes.

A major study from 2011 by the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF) began by trying to compare average emissions for bikes and e-bikes with other forms of transport, taking in both the environmental cost of manufacture and of use, which for bikes included extra calories consumed by the rider. Even after factoring in a hefty average bike weight of nearly almost forty-five pounds, the ECF calculated emissions of twenty-one grams of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) per kilometer, with e-bikes putting out just one gram more. In contrast, the emissions for a car were 271g/km per person, with 101g/km per bus passenger.

The study worked out that if every EU nation reached Danish cycling levels, this would on its own make up between 5 percent and 11 percent of the emissions reductions needed to reach the bloc’s official 2020 emissions targets, and would be between 57 percent and 125 percent of the reduction needed in transport emissions.

A separate US report in 2015 worked out that e-bikes can often be more energy efficient per passenger kilometer than many rail systems. If the global share of urban journeys made by bike even rose slightly from the current 6 percent or so to 11 percent in 2030 and 14 percent in 2050, this would cut overall emissions by 7 percent (in 2030) and then 11 percent (in 2050).

As mentioned at the start of the chapter, it’s long been a cliché among noncyclists that those who ride a bike are puritan environmental zealots who choose their clunky, antiquated mode of transport out of a hair-shirt desire to rescue the planet. They might be wrong about the motivation, but it seems we’re helping to do so nonetheless.



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