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Bad air and the return of bicycling

Posted by on September 16th, 2020 at 10:47 am

Hopefully the trend holds and we’re in the green soon.
(Source: IQAir.com)

It’s been at least a week since smoky air showed up as an unwanted guest in Portland. Streets are dead and most people are in a more severe lockdown mode than when Covid-19 first hit. That’s certainly true for people who love and need to ride bicycles, many of whom continued to ride alone or indoors throughout the pandemic. But now even that’s not happening because the air is just too hazardous — indoors or out.

As the city’s shutdown of bike share illustrates, riding a bike when air quality is hazardous is a non-starter for nearly everyone with a choice. But it appears we’re on the road to recovery. With all signs pointing to better air quality by Thursday or Friday, I sense a massive pent-up demand to start riding again.

Roll through yellow? Or wait for green?

Burning legs are good; burning eyes, throat, or lungs are bad.

According to air quality forecasts, we should be well below a 100 AQI score by tomorrow. That would put us solidly in the “moderate” (yellow) level that the EPA defines as “acceptable” for all but a small number of sensitive people. For context, Portland usually has a score between 10 and 20 — so that means even the moderate level should not be taken lightly. Another thing to remember is air quality can vary in different parts of town, so make sure to check the AQI specifically where you’ll be riding.

You can learn more about what the AQI numbers mean at EPA.gov.

Keep in mind there’s no right or wrong time to ride. It’s everyone’s personal choice. That being said, I have a strong hunch most of you won’t wait for a “good” ranking (0-50 AQI score) before grabbing your bikes and hitting the paths and roads. If you do ride with any amount of smoke still in the air, it’s a good idea to have a mask available to wear if you need it, drink lots of water, and most importantly listen to your body. Burning legs are good; burning eyes, throat, or lungs are bad.

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Plan ahead and be aware of closures

(Graphic: ODOT)

If you’re the adventurous type and dream of big rides into rural areas, keep in mind many roads, parks, and forest zones are still closed.

Stimson Lumber and Weyerhaeuser manage much of land that’s become increasingly popular for gravel riding. Stimson says all their land remains closed until further notice. Weyerhaeuser just re-opened their lands this morning but warns all permit holders to use extreme caution due to ongoing risk of fires. The Mt. Hood National Forest has been closed since September 8th and there’s no word of a re-opening date.

You should also follow local transportation agencies for updates:

— Washington County maintains a good site that lists all current road closures.

— The Oregon Department of Transportation published a special wildfire page on their site this morning with detailed information about highway closure status.

— In Portland, be aware that Mayor Wheeler’s fire emergency declaration remains in place. It calls for closure of, “all outdoor parks and natural areas owned by the City of Portland, including all forested parks.” This includes Forest Park and paths like the Springwater and Eastbank Esplanade. Wheeler’s order is currently in effect until next Thursday (9/24) at 12 noon.

— For updated status of Portland parks and trails, see the Parks Bureau website.

Good luck and take care of yourself

It’s been tough sledding in Portland and I’m thinking good thoughts for everyone. No matter what choices you make about riding, please be good to your body. Reader Katy Wolf shared good advice with me on Twitter this morning: “How about give your body some time to heal and recover? I wouldn’t go exercise outside until it’s green, because we’ve all been dealing with over a week of hazardous air. None of us know how bad the air inside our houses really is.”

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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Tom
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Tom

A useful site is purpleair.com. It shows a map of sensors near you with real time data. If you click on a sensor, it will show a trend chart so you can see if its getting better or worse. Note some sensors are indoors but they are pretty obvious.

https://www.purpleair.com/map?opt=1/mAQI/a10/cC0#11/45.5119/-122.6439

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

Great site!

It looks like Utah is the nearest area for anyone on the West Coast can find reasonably clean air. Even Oregon’s high desert is super unhealthy.

Burk Webb
Subscriber
Burk Webb

Nice, thanks much! Alas, Milwaukie is 445 🙁

Burk Webb
Subscriber
Burk Webb

… and now 475.

PTB
Guest
PTB

Super disappointing that there are no sensors here east of 205 (well, there’s the Lents one). East Portland, constantly underrepresented.

Steve C
Guest
Steve C

I think, could be wrong, it’s sourced data from private installations of their IOT sensors. So you can buy one and setup your own monitoring station. https://www2.purpleair.com/pages/install

Hello, Kitty
Guest
Hello, Kitty

DEQ has a monitoring station in Cully, near Helensview HS (ok, it’s not quite past I-205, but close). There are private monitors everywhere people want to install them. You could have one too — step forward and help represent East Portland!

PTB
Guest
PTB

That would be cool as hell but the Purple Air PA-II monitor is 250 bucks. Yeesh. Not what I’m really looking to spend 250 on right now.

Jason
Guest
Jason

I am getting 251 from AirNow.Gov

I rode my bike to work last Thursday, the air quality then was below 100. When I left it was 150+ as I recall. I’ll wait til it dips below 100 again.

colton
Guest
colton

100 is my bright line too.

Todd/Boulanger
Guest

Good topic.

So does anyone know why the Apple Weather air quality index # has been typically 2x higher than the US AQI listed by IQAir.com (AirVisual App) during the worst fire days this last week? (This has been a constant debate in our household this week given the fires.) [I wonder if it is due to IQAPI having additional data from private monitoring sites? Though right now Apple’s # 209 is now more similar to IQAir’s 181 for Van WA]

Eric
Guest
Eric

Super curious about this too. As I type this, Purpleair is mostly in the 300s and 400s, airnow says 295, and iqair is 280 (but somehow forecasted to be around 160?). Why are all these numbers different?

Hello, Kitty
Guest
Hello, Kitty

One reason might be that AQI is a “manufactured” number, sort of like Heat Index. Its ingredients can differ, and you can omit things if you don’t have them. PurpleAir devices, for example, don’t measure ozone, so they’re probably relying on a regionally reported value, or maybe leaving that out altogether.
Other AQI computations may be relying on different recipes, using differently reported numbers, with different levels of granularity.

In this crisis, I really only pay attention to the PM numbers because that’s what’s dominating our air quality. While that can be measured in different ways, it is at least a fairly consistent “hard” measure of what’s going on.

I generally disregard “heat index” and “wind chill” and “AQI”, but others find them useful.

Bill
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Bill

The regional air quality district for Lane County has a really good page on PurpleAir and other low-cost sensors that might help explain some of the differences in measurements you see between the regulatory-grade air monitors and theirs: https://www.lrapa.org/307/Air-Quality-Sensors

EPA’s AirNow website for wildfire smoke ( https://fire.airnow.gov/ ) blends both sets of monitors onto a single page, and I believe includes some of the adjustments that LRAPA discusses using to adjust the low-cost sensor data so it’s more accurate in these situations.

Hello, Kitty
Guest
Hello, Kitty

If you’re more visual than numerate, this pretty much says everything you need to know:

https://zoom.earth/#view=43.184,-118.381,7z/date=2020-09-16,10:30,-7

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

Nice view of Sally. Thanks!

Shuppatsu
Guest
Shuppatsu

Annoyingly for me, once the air gets better, they will start working on the I-5 bridge. I can handle a 10.5 mi commute but not a 17 miler.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

Are they closing the pedestrian path on the southbound bridge? I thought it was just the northbound span that was closing.

Alex A
Guest
Alex A

I left town 5 days ago to escape the toxic air, and spent a few days near Olympic National Park. Did several 2-hr gravel rides, mountainous, in air that was around 150 AQI. My body/lungs didn’t seem to mind, at least in the short-term.

Middle of the Road Guy
Guest
Middle of the Road Guy

I’d love to know where those gravel rides were.

Branden
Guest
Branden

Still riding my bike but I may be an outlier since I like the smoke, my company can’t close down because of a little smoke.

Johnny Bye Carter
Subscriber
Johnny Bye Carter

The only reason I’m riding my bike less is because a lot of the places I want to go are closed.

I’ve lived in fire country and been evacuated so this little bit of smoke doesn’t bother me that much.

Middle of the Road Guy
Guest
Middle of the Road Guy

Here is your cookie.

Concordia Cyclist
Guest
Concordia Cyclist

“…little smoke”? Do you live in Beijing? The numbers were literally off the scale over the weekend in my neighborhood. And Krakatoa was a “little” volcanic activity?

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

2020: the year we realize that about 40% of Americans don’t care about respiratory health.

Racer X
Guest

Curbed picked up on this line of discussion today and reported…

https://www.curbed.com/2020/9/17/21439773/wildfires-air-quality-apps-cities

Kyle Banerjee
Guest

I personally think people are getting more wound up about the smoke than necessary. For vulnerable individuals such as those with COPD, asthma, etc yes, it is very serious, but for healthy people without problems, I’m more skeptical.

Portland is in the news for having the worst air because we’re big, not because we actually have the worst air. And as bad as this junk is, it’s nothing compared to the thick grass smoke many of us rode in forever when field burning still went on over the state. Fire season in some places leads to incredibly horrible air that lasts much longer than what we’re dealing with.

I don’t like it, and I’ve been going out less, but I still go out though I can feel the junk in my lungs. A few days of this garbage will undoubtedly clear out within a few weeks once we get normal air again. Much better than sitting inside doing nothing.

Matt
Guest
Matt

Thank you doctor!

soren
Guest
soren

“I personally think people are getting more wound up about the smoke than necessary…but for healthy people without problems, I’m more skeptical.”

This kind of Dunning-Kreuger optimism bias is one of the main explanations for why USAnians have done so little to address severe long-term societal threats (e.g. the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis, and the current global pandemic).