Is biking in the city bad for your health? Researchers want to find out.

Sep 27, 2015

There are many things bikers have to worry about while out on the road: construction, potholes, adverse weather, unaware drivers and, of course, as one inner city cyclist pointed out, black snot. 

“It was just so much construction that, on top of the pollution of the cars and the construction pollution, I just couldn't take it anymore. I would come home and I would have like black snot. It was just nasty,” says Mirna Gatika, a cyclist who rides her bicycle daily from Queens to the Bronx and back over the Triborough Bridge. 

More and more people are riding their bikes. The number of commuters biking to work has increased 60 percent in the last decade, according to a US Census Bureau report. WNYC Healthcare and Medicine Reporter Fred Mogul and Steven Chillrud, Lamont research professor at Columbia University, say they are working on figuring out what pollution might be doing to the health of cyclists. 

Technology designed to monitor air quality already exists. Monitors are in place in New York on lamp poles and rooftops, but Mogul and Chillrud say they want to do a study tailored specifically to cyclists. 

“We actually wanted to to see what that was like at the street level for people exerting themselves because when you cycle, your heart starts pumping, you start breathing harder and literally you breathe deeper. You can amplify whatever it is that's in the air and its impact on your health,” says Mogul. 

He and Chillrud gathered a group of volunteers they are calling the “Bike Brigade,” and outfitted them with sensors to monitor both air pollution and the volume of air they’re breathing, minute by minute. 

“It's those two things together that gives you your dose and we think dose is a better metric, a better measure, than just the concentration alone because you can breathe 10 times higher when you're really exercising than when you're just sitting watching TV,” says Chillrud. “This study’s looking at what the short term indicators are that might lead to long term effects. So is there a short term impact to your heart, to your blood pressure or to your heart rate variability?”

The group hopes they will eventually be able to create a map, and an app so cyclists can plan their bike rides on cleaner, healthier routes. 

“There are benefits and there are risks [to cycling in the city],” Mogul says. “If we quantify those risks and think about ways to diminish those risks, I think that would make the net benefit that much stronger.” 

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday with Ira Flatow