Researchers in New York City are trying to work out exactly what cyclists breathe as they travel

A cyclist using a cycle path in Brooklyn's Prospect Park neighbourhood in 2011. Image: AFP/Getty.

We have that one friend who wears tight, short shorts and shaves their legs so they can attain record-breaking speeds on their prized bicycle. If you don't, with a bit of dedication, you could be that friend. But are there any health downsides to become an avid cyclist?

A five-year investigation from Columbia University aims to find out. Led by researchers Dr Steven Chillrud and Darby Jack, the project is investigating the type of air quality that cyclists breathe as they go about their business in New York City.

What makes the study unusual is that the researchers are not only looking at air quality itself (measured through a sensor, which the cyclists will wear on a harness). They’re also looking at how much of the pollutants cyclists actually breathe in at different levels of cycling intensity (speed, to you and me).

The researchers are also studying other measures, including blood pressure, heart and breathing rates, and breathing volume, too. Simultaneously, the exact time and location will be recorded using a GPS device or smartphone. Local residents have been invited to take part in the study, and to wear the sensors not only while they cycle, but also as they work and sleep.

The researchers' hypothesis is that increased exposure to air pollutants leads to greater heart rate variability and episodic blood pressure increases. The theory is that, as there would be less oxygen present in more heavily polluted air, the heart rate would have to increase in order to pump the same amount of oxygen around the body.

Cities are more prone to heavy air pollution than rural or suburban areas, due to the combination of condensed road networks, tall buildings and slow-moving traffic. And some road uses are particularly prone to breathing those pollutants in: a person's breathing rate can change with more exercise or if they're more vulnerable, such as asthma sufferers.

New York City's own official estimates suggest that at least 2,000 residents die prematurely from air pollutants. The study's findings could help shine a light on why, as well as offering lessons for other major cities.

Exercise such as cycling is still an overwhelming positive, but this experiment could help cyclists share the best routes to ride in the city, and the best time to travel during the day. The goal of this study is to translate these tips into a map, and potentially an app which could help cyclists travel more safely throughout the city.

Emad Ahmed is a science report for our sister site, the New Statesman.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.