How can cyclists protect themselves against air pollution?

A female cyclist attempts to protect herself from air pollution. Image: Getty.

The popularity of cycling in London continues to rise: according to statistics published by Transport for London (TfL), the number of journeys made by bicycle in London grew by 5 per cent in 2018. The transport agency has attributed the upwards trend in cycling to its investment in cycling infrastructure, not least the seven Cycle Superhighways and 12 Cycle Quietways the city now boasts.

Cycling is widely reported to result in health benefits for participants, and cyclists can expect to achieve improvements in both their physical and mental health as a result of switching from public transport or car to a bike. But with air pollution levels remaining stubbornly high across London, should cyclists be concerned that the health benefits they achieve as a result of cycling are actually being outweighed by the dangers posed by increased exposure to air pollution? 

Unlike during the Great Smog of 1952, air pollution today is often invisible to the naked eye. Nonetheless, London breached the European and UK air quality annual limit on 18  March when, for the 36 time this year, levels of pollution particles recorded at a measuring post exceeded the agreed limit. (EU rules allow 35 breaches a year.) Whilst this is a marked improvement on 2018 when the annual limit was broken on the 5 January, it reminds us of the risk that air pollution continues to pose to Londoners today. 

The rise of respirator masks

Anyone who has cycled or walked along one of London's cycle paths in recent years is likely to have seen someone resembling Darth Vader cycling towards them. Protection masks, which are becoming increasingly popular amongst the cycling community, range from cotton surgical masks to respirators with in-built air filtration systems that cover a significant part of the cyclist’s face. 

But do masks actually work and are they worth the investment? 

Cotton masks categorically do not protect wearers against the inhalation of airborne particles. Whilst they can be somewhat effective in protecting against the spread of illnesses, they will not protect a cyclist from air pollution. 

Respirator cycling masks, which range in price from £25 to over £50, are a more sophisticated option. “N99” respirators are said to remove up to 99 per cent of airborne particles from inhaled air. But the particles that cause air pollution today are extremely small, which makes it particularly challenging for respirators to effectively block them from entering the human body. 

Another complicating factor is the fit of the respirator against the human face. Studies have concluded that under “perfect” conditions respirators do effectively filter pollution out of inhaled air. However, when actually fitted to a human face, respirators are often not able to form an effective seal against skin, which ultimately renders them useless. Features such as facial hair and short noses make is particularly challenging for a seal to form. 

The findings of studies into the effectiveness of respirator cycling masks are somewhat mixed – but point to the ineffectiveness of current designs. 


So what can cyclists do to protect themselves? 

The best intervention a cyclist can make to reduce their exposure to air pollution is to avoid the most polluted streets and roads. TfL’s Quietways are an easy way for cyclists to identify the less busy and less polluted roads (although TfL has announced it will be merging the Quietway and Cycle Superhighway networks into a single Cycleways cycle network during summer 2019). 

Cyclists may also consider reducing their cycling speed to reduce their inhalation of airborne particles. The faster and deeper we breathe in polluted air, the more pollutants are delivered to our lungs. Therefore slowing down and reducing their amount of exertion will go some way to protecting cyclists from air pollution. 

Finally, cyclists should check air quality forecasts and make informed decisions regarding their chosen mode of transport on a particular day. TfL provides daily forecasts on its website. 

So should cyclists stop cycling all together? In a word, no. Although there is currently not an effective way to stop yourself from inhaling air pollution whilst cycling, scientists have concluded that the physical and mental health benefits of cycling continue to outweigh the dangers posed by exposure to air pollution. Cycling remains a healthy method of transport for Londoners. 

If you are a cyclist who is concerned about your exposure to air pollution and you are considering investing in a respirator mask, be aware that research suggests they will not protect you effectively. Instead you may want to consider donating the money you would have spent on a respirator to a charity such as Trees for Cities, whose mission is to transform urban areas by creating Urban Forests.

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

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