With the Fires Effecting Air Quality, Bike Safely Out There

9_2_09_smoke.jpgPhoto: Times

On Monday, reader M asked for some advice while traveling outside. While some readers stepped up with some good advice, I asked some of our local bike safety experts for their advice.

A couple of people took up the challenge, and in particular Shay Sanchez, the co-founder and program director of Cyclists Inciting Change through Live Exchange, wrote several suggestions which you can find here. Sanchez writes:

L.A. summer smog is bad enough, but throw a giant ash plume into the mix and it’s time to take a serious look at keeping your lungs happy.

  1. Find alternatives to biking. (Whoa! Did I just write that??!!) The air is laden with smoke and health experts are advising that we minimize our exposure to air pollutants by not engaging in outdoor physical activities. This, of course, includes city bicycling. The risks to your health can be serious, especially if you’re grappling with asthma or another respiratory or cardiovascular health challenge. So if you can, think about finding an alternative to bicycling. Consider riding public transit, car-pooling, hailing a taxi, or even renting a car during this time (if you’re currently car-free).
  2. Take it easy. If you are going to ride, reduce your effort. During aerobic exercise (even at low-intensity) you may breathe as much as 10 times more air than you do when at rest. So it makes sense to s-l-o-w it down. Be aware that at lower speeds the speed differential between you and overtaking traffic increases, possibly increasing the risk for a collision. Be alert. Better yet, choose lower speed street alternatives whenever possible. Another benefit to streets that carry lower traffic volumes is that they feature lower air pollution levels in general. Pollution levels are likely to start decreasing at 50 feet from a main arterial.
  3. Keep it short. If you are going to ride, limit the length of your journey. Many of our trips are 2 miles or less, so this should be pretty easy for many of us. For longer trips, see if you can shorten the bike portion of your trip by incorporating multi-modal options such as bus and/or train.
  4. Wear a mask. Another helpful option is to wear a filtering face mask. Be sure that it’s a carbon-impregnated face mask, which are known to be helpful in reducing the amount of air pollution that enters the lungs. Your mask should fit your face well, with almost no gaps between you nose and mouth.

For advice from Joe Linton, Roadblock and Ron Milam, read on after the jump.

After an obligatory shot at car-culture, Linton, chair of the Green L.A. Transportation Working Group and LACBC co-founder, offers advice for cyclists and a link to some advice to keep kids safe:

I guess I’d start with the big picture. I suspect that there are causal connections betwen our driving and the fires. Auto emissions are a major part of what’s heating up the planet. In order to park and to drive, we’ve paved over our landscape with impermeable surfaces, breaking water cycles, shrinking groundwaters and causing desertification. Combine these with Southern California’s natural fire cycles and you get the devasting fire events including what we’re seeing right now. The big picture remedies include not driving, and working to heal our watersheds.

 All that said, what I can say about the day-to-day stuff seems pretty ordinary: if you’re a cyclist living in a highly impacted are, go easy this week. Take the bus, drive some if you need to. Crash at your friend’s place on the west side. And when the smoke clears, redouble your commitment to staying out of cars.

My creekfreak blog mate Jessica wrote about the fires, including links to natural history information. My comments there include links to Ilsa Setziol’s writings – including one on how to take precautions for kids, who are more vulnerable.

Roadblock, one the leaders of the Midnight Ridazz and the Wolfpack Hustle, offers advice for riders who are going to brave the smoke on longer trips:

The wind is important to planning your trip. Guage the wind and terrain. The idea is to stay upwind from the smoke at all times. Barring that, if possible, try to take downhill routes in the smokey areas and try to place the the uphill portion of your route upwind of the fires. It might mean adding 10 or 15 miles to your route in the same manner that sailboats zig and zag across the ocean using triangular routes against the current of the wind to reach their destination. If all else fails hit the subway or take the bus.

Last but not least, Ron Milam, another LACBC co-founder and a consultant with Ron Milam consulting, offers his sage advice:

This is what the air quality was like when I grew up in L.A., which makes me appreciate how far we’ve come as a region to clean our air. I continue to ride during the fires and am intentionally riding a little slower so I don’t breathe as hard.

  • M

    Thank you!

    Does anyone have links to recommended filtering face masks?

  • I think Roadblock is on the right track. Your options may be limited if you ride for transportation rather than recreation — you’ve got to go where you’ve got to go, regardless of the air quality.

    However, if you ride for recreation, plan a route that takes you towards the coast. Here on the Westside, we’ve been getting smoke at night and in the morning, as the winds blow towards the ocean. But once the winds reverse, around 10 am or so, it usually blows the smoke back inland and you get several hours of clear air.

    I’ve been able to ride the last week with just minimal disruption; in fact, I’m leaving in a few minutes on a ride that will take me from Westwood to Hermosa and should have clean air the whole way.

    As for wearing masks, you should be able to pick up a mask that will do the trick at any drug store or paint store. And as a last resort, a bandana tied over your face makes an effective air filter — just don’t wear it into a bank or a liquor store.

  • Self-deprecating LOL @ my “an obligatory shot at car-culture” … True, true… I guess I am that predictable.

    Shay’s advice is really good. And the fires are really scary…

    (Joe’s predictable parting anti-car-culture shot: It is one of my many anti-car pet peeves that cars are the solution that contributes to the vicious cycle that makes the problem worse. Mainstream logic does stuff like this: Dangerous traffic? Don’t bike, drive. Dangerous air? Don’t bike, drive. Streets congested? Add more space for cars.)

  • DLM

    @bikinginla
    Just a quick note to point out that a bandana actually does almost nothing to filter polluted air. The particles that are dangerous are far too small to be filtered by normal fabric. Basic dust/surgical masks that can be gotten at any hardware/paint/pharmacy store will do much more. There are some that are impregnated with activated carbon (and will be grey instead of white) which reduce the chemicals that you breathe as well as the particulates.

    Not to contradict you, just want to get the best info out there as possible. :)

  • Thanks for the correction, DLM. I’ve used a bandana to ride through snow storms and blowing sand, and assumed it would work on smoke as well.

    And I never object to being contradicted by someone who knows more about the subject than I do.

  • People living in cities are exposed to pollution as it is. The benefits of biking far outweigh the health effects you get by staying indoors. So, take your bike out by all means. Just steer clear of congested roads- and wear a useless mask! Did you notice that none of the manufacturers make any claims about their efficacy? Hmmmm…

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