Getting Your Lungs from Point A to Point B


by Karrie Kressler


I started seriously bicycling only recently when I moved to Pittsburgh, which is a heck of a place to start considering all of the hills here. It’s also surprising considering that while I was growing up I watched my role-model-dad bike to work every fair-weathered day. I made the trip with him a few times, but it wasn’t without a bunch of effort and a constant longing for us to be “…there yet.” Now, I travel by bike due to a combination of health and environmental benefits, necessity (no car), and finally, having crested the ultimate hill, habit.

Pittsburgh is a very multimodal city. When getting from point A to point B, you have your pick of car, bus, train, incline, and perhaps someday, even a zip line. If you choose to walk or bike, as I do, you’re not alone. Pittsburgh is 5th in the nation when it comes to commuting by bike and by foot. When biking or walking, common sense will tell you that it’s safer to take side streets with less traffic, and use roads where there are bikes lanes or sidewalks.

But on which streets is the air quality safest? And on which is it the worst? This week, a group of volunteers and I are getting a closer look.

In order to provide Pittsburghers with a comprehensive and intimate view of the areas where they walk and ride, we created the Bike Air Monitoring (BAM) project. This project is funded by a grant from Google and is part of GASP’s Athlete’s United for Healthy Air Campaign, which works to educate and empower athletes to fight for clean air. The BAMs made their debut last year with many volunteers, riding many miles. This year, our units have been redesigned (thanks to the efforts of Christine Rigby, the SCA Fellow on this project in 2012), and we’re sending them out for another round of data collection.

This evening I happily met up with Matt, a volunteer who bike commutes quite a lot, to introduce him to the unit that’ll be his sidekick for the next two weeks.

The unit consists of one air quality monitor, and one GPS attached to PVC rigging. The monitors measure particulate matter (PM), tiny pieces of soot, dust, and chemicals floating in the air, while the GPS tracks the rider’s location. We get readings for PM10 and PM2.5, where the 10 and 2.5 are the particles’ sizes in microns. PM2.5 and smaller are particularly dangerous since it’s the ultrafine particles, 2.5 and under, that can get into the blood. People who are active outdoors are especially vulnerable to all types of pollution, since they breathe deeply, and rapidly, increasing their risk of exposure to pollution in the air and decreasing performance. Soon, Matt and I will get to look at what he can’t see along his ride.

After some paperwork, we strapped the unit to his bicycle, and negotiated new placements for his headlight and speedometer, since the BAM always rides shot gun on a person’s handlebars. I briefly showed Matt how to operate the newly positioned BAM, and set him loose on the town. He is one of three volunteers with BAMs on the road. If there is one in the office between volunteer pickups, I take it wherever I ride.

Earlier this week, the same monitor I gave to Matt was brought back to the office by Clara, another SCA Green Cities Fellow. I downloaded scores of data from her unit, which is exciting. I really like numbers. All of the information from the monitor and the GPS is combined in excel to create a colorful map of readings. The goal is to create yet another layer of data for people to consider when choosing how to get from one place to another.

Thanks to the help of University of Pittsburgh’s Computer Science Department, we’ve been able to mold our data into an interactive tool. The map is set to go live on the web sometime this summer, and will look something like this:

A user will be able to map how to get to and from locations, adjusting for time of day and time of year to find the healthiest route. A lot of the data will align with the places it’s already safer to bike and walk because less traffic means fewer vehicle emissions. Now we have hard numbers to go with that common sense, and an interface to make it ring true.

Biking is a workout, and a benefit to one’s health. I’m working to make sure it stays that way, because cycling is one habit that I don’t intend to break. It is my way to get from point A to point B, and I’ll take the best air (and the flattest roads) that I can.