Cycling in urban Metro Manila: An air pollution cost vs. health benefit analysis

Earlier this month, a post written by Mandaluyong City mayor Menchie Abalos made the rounds on Facebook and ended up on my feed. It lauded the air quality index rating of her city as ninth cleanest in Southeast Asia. (NB: Mandaluyong, Valenzuela, Parañaque, Las Piñas, Quezon City, Manila, and Makati are some of the 15 or so cities that make up the bigger whole that is Metro Manila.)

It may have seemed like the usual horn-tooting that politicians are wont to do, but Abalos backed up her claim (good on her, by the way) with the 2018 IQ AirVisual World Air Quality Report, which is a downloadable PDF file and makes for some pretty interesting reading…and quite a few incredulous reactions. This report got picked up by many local news outlets and soon became viral in early March 2019. Many Pinoys shook their head in disbelief, citing the visible smog hanging in the morning Metro Manila skyline; some even called this report “fake news.”

Unlike many people, I’ve been monitoring this same topic since 2015. As a bike commuter, I had a bigger stake in the matter than most. At what point is there a diminishing return in cycling around the city, where the harm of pollutants outweighs the potential health benefits of the activity?

This “tipping point” table reports the point in each of these cities at which any further cycling may become harmful for your health.
Source: University of Cambridge via Quartz, May 17, 2016.
The continuation of the above table.
Source: University of Cambridge via Quartz, May 17, 2016.

News website Quartz reported on this exact issue in 2016, citing a study done by the University of Cambridge. As surprising as it may seem, in this particular regard, Metro Manila air quality…is not yet at the level where cycling just half an hour outdoors is a bad idea.

This was also backed up by local air quality index data. Unbeknownst to many, there actually exist a smattering of air quality index (AQI) stations around the many cities that make up the Metro Manila area, and one of them is…well, was, located in my home town of Parañaque City. This was what I’d been monitoring since 2015, and you could check the area’s AQI in real time, bettering and worsening depending on the time of day and the transportation patterns within it.

Unfortunately, this particular station, maintained by the government’s Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (DENR), quietly went offline within 2018. In my day-to-day observations, at least, the data checked out and validated the IQ AirVisual report Abalos quoted. The worst I’d seen reported was that Parañaque AQI was unhealthy for sensitive individuals, particularly in the late afternoons.

Meycauayan City AQI data from March 11, 2019, 6:30 am.
Meycauayan City AQI data from March 11, 2019, 7:30 am.
Note the weekly air quality forecast. I have my mouse cursor hovered over Sunday, March 17th, predicting cleaner air on that day vs the rest of the week.

Had the Parañaque AQI station still been operational though, this is what its data would have looked like. As of this writing, this AQI station in Meycauayan City, Bulacan province – located just at the northern outskirts of Metro Manila – is still running. After just an hour, we can already see a spike in the AQI index as more people get to the streets on their morning commute. You can also see the historical data measurements of PM10 (a type of particulate matter suspended in the air and a valid measurement of air pollution) displayed as a bar graph over the past 48 hours.

Fortunately, petroleum firm Unioil has partnered with the DENR to help continue AQI measurement from 2018 onwards via their network of gas stations. Their AQI data seems to have been at least part of the basis of the IQAir AirVisual report Abalos cited, and can be accessed via a smartphone app. In a sense, the old Parañaque AQI station still lives on, and still offers real-time readouts, albeit in a different, more convenient form.

While this seems like a move purely meant to generate good public relations and paint Unioil in a good light in the corporate social responsibility stakes, the continuation of AQI data monitoring is very welcome.

The IQAir AirVisual smartphone app lets you monitor the AQI index of multiple cities.
Screenshot taken on March 20, 2019, 10:36 am (7:36 pm of the previous day in California).

Let me make one thing clear: I am not saying that Metro Manila air is not polluted. It is, undeniably, and I still believe Filipinos should be doing more to address it. Air pollution is not a matter of black or white, though. There are cities globally that are more polluted than others, and within those cities, there are pockets of space that are indeed more polluted than others.

The Manila Coffee Cycling Club riding through Makati central business district.
Photo credit: JP Cariño.

The data so far shows that we Filipinos are lucky that our air quality still remains good enough to cycle in for a number of hours, before the harm from air pollution renders the otherwise beneficial activity a waste of time. As more and more people take to bicycle commuting to get around the many, many urban design and mass transportation failures of Metro Manila, I believe this talk of air quality, its measurement, and its improvement, should become increasingly top of mind.


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