F*ck Cars? Air Pollution Exposure While Driving Higher Than Walking

Cars have transported (literally) our routines and way of life since their mass adoption in the 20th century. Driving to and from work, picking up groceries, going shopping, and sending kids to school - are just some of the regular errands that we accomplish by car.


fuck cars? air pollution higher while driving than biking or walking
Photo by Franco Ruarte on Unsplash


But there are more reasons one should consider walking or cycling if it's doable. There's the apparent reason that a typical passenger vehicle can emit up to 4.6 metric tons of CO2 annually. It doesn't sound much, but it adds up when millions of cars run each day. Not to mention that this is only an average. The total emissions can increase or decrease depending on several factors, such as what type of fuel is used, its fuel economy, and how many miles it's driven in a year.


Air Pollution Exposure While Driving

This could change your mind if you’re wary of air pollution when walking or biking. The latest research suggests that walking or cycling to places makes you less exposed to pollutants than if you were driving!

This recent finding is from an England study of commuters. The investigation compared how much pollution exposure people who bike or walk to work get versus people who use a car. From the 16-week testing, results suggest that in-cabin levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels are much higher for weekday morning commuters who travel by car compared to workers who travel by foot or bike. NO2 is a harmful component when inhaled by humans and is actually one of those looked into in air quality testing.

However, those driving a car are less exposed to particulate matter (PM2.5) than those outside walking or biking. Particulate matter is made of solid particles (e.g., dust, soot, pollen) and liquid droplets suspended in the air, which can cause harmful respiratory issues for individuals who are regularly exposed to it.

The findings reflect one common misconception about driving versus active commuting. It's easy to think that you're more exposed to air pollutants when you're outside. This was in fact, the public perception in the study's Leicester City location - people assumed that exposure levels are higher while outside than inside a moving car.


Electric Car Drivers Aren't Protected From Pollutants

While previous studies focused on vehicles using petrol or diesel fuel, this most recent research involved electric cars. It was a way for researchers to determine if a driver will be exposed to external air pollutants while inside the vehicle. Examining electric vehicles eliminated the possibility of added emissions from the car itself. That was the finding in the study, that using electric cars doesn’t protect the driver and passengers from air pollution while sitting in traffic.

Even though electric cars are seen as the best choice for minimizing emissions, it turns out that in-car exposure, even when you have an electric vehicle, is higher than if you were an active commuter!

The study shows how crucial it is to promote active commuting these days, especially when the number of electric cars is insufficient to significantly change air pollution concentrations.


Choose Active Commuting As Much As Possible

It would be impossible and illogical to completely do away with cars. After all, they make life convenient. But fuel-powered or electric vehicles still expose the driver and passengers to pollutants like NO2. 

Even though active commuters are more vulnerable to particulate matter, walking and biking are still more health advantages than driving. The benefits of improved physical and mental health far outweigh the pollution exposure for these active commuters, except extreme air pollution concentration areas.

A big takeaway is to shift more to active commuting whenever you can. Not only can it significantly reduce carbon footprint and increase your non-exercise activity (NEAT), but it can also reduce traffic-generated pollution exposure overall. 

 Fewer cars mean less pollution for both those who are driving and those who choose active commuting. As long as there aren't enough electric vehicles (both public and private) to negate tailpipe emissions, there will still be high levels of ambient air pollutants that impact health.

The researchers also mentioned that active commuters might benefit from changing road layouts, increasing the number of bike lanes, or separating bike lane routes from vehicle roads. These strategies could drastically reduce how much pollution a person inhales while on a daily routine. 

Policies and incentives are part of the equation for making active commuting more convenient, and healthier and encouraging more people to walk and bike.

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