Last Friday morning, John Hayes of Lazy Bike Tours, in Temple Bar, got ready for his first tour of the day, wheeling out the bikes, and handing out helmets and hi-vis vests.
Staff inside rigged up some unusual equipment: a helmet fitted out with a clear plastic tube, an air-pollution monitor, and a GPS tracker.
The company has teamed up with the Engineering Department at Trinity College Dublin to try to map small particulate matter that research suggests – while it’s complex to tease out – can cause health problems for those who breathe it in.
“We want to see what the pollution is like and if we need to make changes for our own health,” says Hugh Flood, who started Lazy Bike Tours in 2015.
Lazy Bike Tours lead groups of visitors on electric bikes up around Dublin Castle, Newmarket, Guinness, St Patrick’s Cathedral, Kilmainham, and more. On the way, they cycle along busy roads like Thomas Street and Dame Street.
In the late morning, there aren’t many cars, but buses whiz past, and heavy-goods vehicles (HGVs) trundle by, spewing black exhaust behind them. Hayes stops at each attraction, pointing out its curiosities, and giving a run down of its history.
Flood says he’s noticed more traffic around in the past year. And this made him think about the diesel fumes his tour guides and customers breathe in. “As cyclists, there’s a lot of diesel in the air from buses,” he says.
The idea for the collaboration came from Martin Donegan, who is doing an MA in the School of Engineering at Trinity College. It’s part of his final assessment, working under John Gallagher, an assistant professor there.
It’s the small particulate matter 2.5 that they’re looking to find hotspots of, says Gallagher. This is linked “to respiratory and cardiovascular health problems, as well as being carcinogenic, thus our interested is well founded”, he says.
Flood says he’ll use the findings from the study to see if his cycling tours should switch up their route to cap the impact of poor air-quality on guides and visitors.
Where possible, Gallagher says he likes to connect with businesses and organisations who may benefit from the information they collect. Last year, he worked on energy efficiency in student accommodation. He is talking to GoCar, REPAK and others about mobility and waste issues at the moment.
“I don’t want this to be simply an exercise of measurement. It might help change things and be a good news story as tourists benefit from the outcome of our work,” Gallagher says.
It may take a few months to collect the data, he says. Guides on the tour will have monitors rigged up to their helmets, and track the air pollution at different times of day.
“I can map the levels, identify hotspots,” says Donegan, the MA student, by email. He can then suggest ways to deal with it, such as low walls, trees, hedges and better cycling infrastructure in places.
It’s also timely, Donegan says. An Bord Pleanála‘s rejection of the proposed College Green plaza will be detrimental to cyclists and pedestrian safety, he says. In part, because of “continued increasing exposure to air pollutants”, he says.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is rolling out more stations to monitor air quality, which will create more real-time data on how clean Dublin’s air is.
Its also working on its own version of hot-spot mapping using council traffic data and monitoring nitrogen oxides in the air near traffic lights, says Patrick Kenny, air quality manager with the EPA.
But EPA monitoring stations track air quality by the hour. Gallagher and Donegan will measure each minute. The EPA are looking more at traffic, while the study is looking at what real people are experiencing, says Gallagher.
Their data collection is complementary, says Gallagher.
“We have an understanding of where hotspots might occur, like traffic lights,” says Gallagher. “Then we take it to the next step. What can we do to change things?” he says, in order to change [pedestrian and cyclist] behaviour. So far, he and Donegan have identified two hotspots on the tour: at the Guinness brewery and in Temple Bar.
It’s not as simple as just cutting down air pollution, says Gallagher. Electrifying the whole bus fleet will only get the city so far. “We have air quality limits.”
“It’s about engaging with the public to make them aware of what’s out there,” he says.