Children in bike trailers exposed to more pollution than those towing them

University of Surrey research shows that pollution particles are greater at the height of a buggy

Bike trailer
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Children riding in trailers attached to bikes are more exposed to pollution (opens in new tab) than the cyclists towing them, according to new research.

Trailer covers can help combat fine pollution particles, but the impact of air pollution is greater at the height of the trailer to the cyclist.

The research, published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials Advances (opens in new tab), states: "Young children carried in bike trailers are exposed to higher air pollution concentrations compared with the cyclist, particularly during peak morning periods at urban pollution hotspots such as traffic lights."

The team from the University of Surrey carried out a total of 82 single runs covering a length of 176 km in order to emulate the school run.

They found that the average concentration of coarse air pollution particles in a bike trailer is 14% higher than at cyclist height in the mornings, and 18% higher than cyclist height in the afternoons.

Young children are the "most vulnerable population cohort to the negative health impacts of air pollution" according to the report. The authors write: "Both indoor and outdoor air pollution is estimated to be a leading cause of one in ten deaths in children under the age of five years, of which ∼20% of these deaths are attributable to exposure to outdoor air pollution."

Nearly 543,000 children under the age of five prematurely die to the effects of pollution.

The report shows that children are particularly affected at urban pollution hotspots such as traffic intersections (TIs) and traffic lights.

The authors conclude: "The concentrations were higher at pollution hotspots such as TIs (50% higher fine particle concentration during morning peak times) compared with the rest of the route."

Covers on trailers halved the impact of fine particles on the occupants of the buggies during peak morning hours.

Professor Prashant Kumar, of the University of Surrey, and the founding director of the Global Centre for Clean Air Research, said: “It’s unfortunate that the very people who help minimise pollution by cycling rather than driving can be exposing their children to higher levels of pollution, and I’d encourage adults pulling bike trailers to use covers in heavy traffic.

“With the use of electric-assisted cargo bikes growing rapidly in Europe, it’s crucial traffic planners ensure road infrastructure is designed to enable safe use of sustainable transport options.”

A 2021 survey (opens in new tab) by Sustrans  (opens in new tab) showed that only two per cent of children cycle to school each day but that 14 per cent would supposedly like to.

The Sustrans survey, carried out by YouGove and covering 1,305 children aged six-15 across the UK, found that 49 per cent of children are worried about the air pollution near their school, while 57 per cent describe the environment around their school as having too many cars.

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Adam is Cycling Weekly’s senior news and feature writer – his greatest love is road racing but as long as he is cycling on tarmac, he's happy. Before joining Cycling Weekly he spent two years writing for Procycling, where he interviewed riders and wrote about racing, speaking to people as varied as Demi Vollering to Philippe Gilbert. Before cycling took over my professional life, he covered ecclesiastical matters at the world’s largest Anglican newspaper and politics at Business Insider. Don't ask how that is related to cycling.