Cycling for Cleaner Air

The bicycle is one of the simplest, yet most effective solution to combat air pollution.
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Wed 3 July 2024

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Air pollution has emerged as a pressing global concern, and Malta is no exception to this troubling issue. The levels of particulate matter 2.5 and 10, nitrogen dioxide, and ozone on the island consistently exceed the quality guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Union (EU). While cars clearly contribute to this pollution, cycling can be a way to achieve cleaner air on the island.

Air pollution silently claims more lives than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. It is also linked to severe health conditions such as cardiovascular diseases, lung cancer, and neurodevelopmental disorders in children.

In Malta, the primary culprit behind the polluted air is undoubtedly the transportation sector, particularly personal cars. With a staggering 439,398 vehicles on our small island, congestion and emissions have become overwhelming. Petrol cars release substantial amounts of nitrogen oxide, while diesel engines emit particles and carbon monoxide. 

Surprisingly, even electric vehicles are not entirely environmentally friendly. Cars contribute to air pollution not just through exhaust emissions. Fine dust from tires and brakes plays a more significant role than exhaust emissions. Additionally, the manufacturing process of cars releases substantial CO2 emissions, with petrol and diesel cars contributing 5.6 tonnes and electric cars 8.8 tonnes.

In the pursuit of cleaner air, cycling emerges as a promising alternative. Even during the production stage, bicycles outshine cars in terms of environmental impact. According to the European Cyclists’ Federation, the production of one bike contributes to only 96 kg of CO2 emissions (165 kg for an e-bike). In essence, one car equals 34 e-bikes in terms of carbon footprint.

Cycling is eco-friendly as it relies on human muscle power, producing no toxic gases. Moreover, bikes, being significantly lighter and slower, generate less tire and brake dust than cars. This difference can be particularly noticeable in areas with heavy traffic congestion. Densely populated and highly urbanised Malta stands to benefit significantly from a transition to electric bikes, especially for shorter commutes of less than 5 km.

Several studies conducted in various European cities confirm that reducing car traffic by promoting better cycling infrastructure, improving public transportation, and implementing congestion taxes has led to fresher and cleaner air. 

You might wonder about the risks of cycling amidst polluted air. While the red air quality indicators may be alarming, you should be aware that even in your car, you're exposed to harmful gases and particles. In fact, car commuters may experience higher exposure to NO2 and benzene due to air entering the vehicle through vents and accumulating in the confined space.

Of course, cycling along busy highways is not the healthiest option. To mitigate the negative impact of air pollution on your health, avoid main roads and opt for side streets and country roads whenever possible. Riding an e-bike can be another solution, as it helps shorten commute times, reducing the duration of exposure to hazardous gases and particles.

For those not ready to completely abandon their cars, swapping the car for a bicycle at least once or twice a week to commute to work can bring renewed energy and contribute to cleaner air in Malta. By collectively embracing cycling and adopting eco-friendly transportation habits, we can pave the way for a greener and healthier future on the island.

The benefits of cycling

Cycling has also plenty of other benefits. It makes you stronger and fitter, helping you to improve your stamina, coordination and posture. It can reduce the risk of cardiovascular conditions and lower your cholesterol. 

It is also a terrific mood booster. Even a short ride can produce endorphins that will ease feelings of stress or depression. It’s also scientifically proven that daily cycling helps your cognitive performance. If you ever find yourself unfocused or unmotivated at work, commuting by bike might help you with these problems.

Tips on how to start commuting by bicycle

1. Find a bike that works for you

With the plethora of different bike models and types on the market, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Choosing the right bike, consider the following questions: how far are you going to cycle each day? Will you have to carry the bike up the stairs? What are your fitness level and cycling skills? Is your route to work flat or hilly? Are you going to cycle on paved roads only? 

If you’re sceptical about showing up to work sweaty, an e-bike might be your friend. It will still give you some exercise but with the support of the motor, you’ll conquer the hills with ease and be able to arrive at your destination faster and with less effort. 

If you already have a bike rusting in your garage, bring it to the workshop for maintenance and make use of what you have. You don’t need the newest model to start cycling. 

2. Safety first!

Make sure your bike has working brakes, a bell and lights. Learn about the traffic rules for cyclists and remain cautious. Use hand signals and try to obtain eye contact with other traffic participants before making a manoeuvre.

3. Find the best way to carry your stuff.

Many people shy away from cycling to work because they think they have too much stuff to carry. If you don’t want to have a sweaty back, invest in some panniers - bicycle bags you can mount on your luggage rack. This way, you won’t feel the weight on your shoulders and maybe even will be able to start doing your grocery shopping by bike. 

4. Figure out the safest route for your commute.

Shifting from driving to cycling will require you to adjust your route a little. If you’re worried about having to bike among speeding cars, this cycle map will help you find an alternative route to your destination. 

5. Ask other cyclists for advice.

The cycling community in Malta is very active and supportive. If you need advice, you can ask your question in the Kommunita Rota Facebook group

6. Support Rota!

Consider supporting the cycling advocacy group, Rota - an organisation that actively fights for a more cycle-friendly Malta by proposing solutions for safer roads, organising events and educating people about cycling. Together, we can push for more infrastructure to make cycling easier and safer for people of all ages, skills and abilities.