Bad air and the return of bicycling

Bad air and the return of bicycling

Hopefully the trend holds and we’re in the green soon.

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

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.


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
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