Tube, tyres and traffic
Deep blue Victoria line
Amongst the somewhat grumpy-looking commuters today, we decided to look at the best ways to get around the city both to reduce exposure to pollution and to avoid causing it.
The latter is relatively easy: anything that’s powered by your own muscles (active travel - mainly walking and cycling) is by far the best. Then sharing powered transport will clearly be better than driving your own vehicle. The type of vehicle matters in reducing nitrogen dioxide emissions, but unfortunately electric vehicles still produce particulate matter (sometimes more than petrol and diesel cars do). So the conclusion on that side of the equation is easy: go human-powered wherever possible, and if not, go shared.
Every breath you take
How to reduce your own exposure to air pollution is a much more complicated question to answer. Calculating your dose of air pollution depends on the time you spend travelling, whether you are exercising and hence breathing more deeply, and where you are at each point in your journey. This is further complicated in London as the underground is treated as an indoor space so the places you might go to get information on pollution levels are different to that for outdoor travel.
Handily, Pete Knapp has written this blog post on how to avoid the worst air pollution when travelling around London. Sadly for Louise, who does it most days, one of the main conclusions is to avoid the Victoria line - the deepest lines are generally the worst. On the other hand, it’s quick, so time breathing the bad air is limited; and how toxic all the particulates are is not well understood. Imperial College continues to study this - results of a previous study can be found here. Pete’s blog conclusions can be neatly summed up in the image below, credited to Aim Kumpusiri.
The eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted cycling on a quiet road vs cycling on a busy road. We’re sure no-one particularly wants to cycle on a busy road, but sometimes people might think they don’t have an option. They also might not be aware of the difference in air pollution exposure between possible options, and what health impact this might have. Remember with cycling you have one thing in your favour and one against: on the one hand you are in the open air and not trapped in the confined space of a bus or car; on the other your lungs are working harder to power your travel.
Hence, choice of route, especially if you are doing this regularly, is important. One study had the difference between exposures being 3 to 4 times between the busiest and the quietest routes. Cross River Partnership has offered some route choices between popular locations that can reduce exposure by up to 50% - such as the Wellbeing Walk pictured below. In New York, there is a beta test of a cleaner route finder website. One systematic review found that 36 out of 10,000 deaths could be prevented by choosing a low exposure route compared with a high pollution route during active commuting.
So what’s stopping those cyclists we see bombing along Brixton Road in the morning changing things up? The headlong rush to get in for that 9am meeting? In fact, Sacha has found that a quieter cycling route, albeit looking longer on a map, is actually comparable in time as there is less stopping. And it’s an awful lot more pleasant. His lungs say thank you!
Meanwhile, some drama on the High Saddles from London's courier cycle firm PedalMe. PedalMe is an eco-friendly electric cargo bike scheme operating in London. It's a great idea: a fleet of cargo bikes zip parcels through central London, avoiding congestion and drastically reducing the impact on air pollution and climate change. The company struggled to rebuild after the pandemic and, after failing to reach an agreement with HMRC over debts, went into administration. However, a shareholder buyout has led to its continued operation, preserving jobs and the service. We're relieved by this news and hope more businesses will take the opportunity to make pollution-free deliveries in London.
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