Avoid Biking Until the Air Clears

But if That's Not an Option, Go Slow and Get the Right Kind of Mask, say Experts

Air quality map, Nov. 9, 2018
Air quality map, Nov. 9, 2018

Note: This post is originally from 2017, but we figured it’s worth another look given current conditions due to the fires in Butte County (the map above is today’s air quality). Stay healthy out there!

Government officials are warning people to avoid outdoor activities (see above map) due to particulates in the air. The media is full of reports and interviews with experts about the hazards of breathing the smoke. Many schools are closed. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition has cancelled or postponed several outdoor events, including its pop-up outreach, and its AIDS/Lifecycle Kickoff ride.

Air quality experts are warning against bike riding altogether. Many cyclists have decided to take Muni.

In an interview with KRON4, Dr. Robert Blount, an assistant professor of pediatric and adult pulmonology and critical care medicine at UC San Francisco, recommended that if you have to go outside–to bike to work, for example–make sure to wear a tight-fitting “N95” mask, which means it blocks out 95 percent of particulates in the air. It should be certified with a stamp from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). A kerchief or a run-of-the-mill dust or surgical mask won’t do–only “N95 masks, when used properly, help filter fine particulates in wildfire smoke,” wrote David C. Ralston, with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, in an email to Streetsblog.

To be clear though, nobody is recommending you ride your bike, even with a mask, if there’s any way to avoid it. “The N95 might be good if there’s nothing else you can do, but it’s not a great solution. It’s not designed for people doing exercise or sports. It’s meant for slow, regular breathing,” said Ralph Borrmann, also with the Bay Area Air Quality Managment District. Studies show that keeping your speed and exertion levels down helps–so if you absolutely have to ride, try to stay under 11 mph and avoid hills.

Streetsblog Los Angeles, a city that knows a thing or three about dirty air, has some additional thoughts on cycling and smoky conditions back from 2009, when they suffered their last round of punishing fires. It too advises cyclists, at least when the air is this smoky, to leave the bike at home.

“I would normally ride my bike to work. I took the train instead,” said Borrmann.

If you are going to ride, it's helpful to keep speed down, and add a NIOSH-certified mask to your kit
If you are going to ride, it’s helpful to keep speeds down, and add a NIOSH-certified mask to your kit
  • thielges

    Better than the basic N95 masks are the similar masks that include an exhale check valve. They look like they have a little square plastic widget in the center of the mask. The check valve makes it a lot easier to exhale and clear the mask of spent air. Even better is a respirator like pictured above next to the helmet.

    I tried biking home with a basic (no check valve) N95 mask that my office was handing out. and ended up taking it off after the first mile. It was getting too humid and uncomfortable under the mask.

    While this smoke is bad here in the Bay Area spare a thought for those living in the fire zone who’s homes and lives are at risk.

  • • I disapprove of Don’t Bike headlines, let’s be solutions-oriented from the get-go.

  • curiousKulak

    Tried the JUMP bike today (first time), as I thought maybe a pedelectric might make getting around less ‘athletic’. However, it had my mask flexing (in/out); so I short circuited the experiment.

    Yeah, MUNI does come in handy at times.

    Those canister masks are unwieldy, and difficult to stash at your destination (although, most destinations still have bad air). But, they are effective. YMMV

  • • It turns out that the “Apparently, that’s causing huge delays” link is from a year ago. Quite possibly true this year, though.

  • Roger R.

    Hi Jym. Sorry about that. I’m sure you saw the note at the top acknowledging that it’s an old post. Couldn’t really figure out how to say anything new over the 2017 fires…. I’ll take out that line though as it may be causing confusion. PS: I was supposed to be taking a half-day on Friday, but wanted to get something up about the smoke (no rest for the weary).

  • Roger R.

    Hi Jym. A fair point. I changed “Don’t” to “Avoid” to tone it down a bit. That said, this smoke is an extreme and (thankfully) unusual condition. Was Joe talking about during fires, or just in general? In general, I agree with him completely, but I think even Joe would hesitate to bike when the smoke gets this toxic.

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