There may well be ‘nine million bicycles in Beijing’, but cycling in the home of the Forbidden City is hardly the healthiest of activities. Years of intense smog means Beijing has become a focal point for the global effort to tackle air pollution; the latest official air quality target set by the mayor of Beijing – 60 micrograms of PM2.5 particles per cubic metre – is over twice the accepted World Health Organization level of 20 to 25 micrograms.
‘I became inspired by Beijing’s smog,’ says Daan Roosegaarde, founder of Rotterdam-based Studio Roosegaarde. ‘I’ve lived there. It’s so intense that you literally cannot see the other side of the street.’
Starting with Beijing, Roosegaarde hopes to make sweeping changes to the state of urban air around the world, by utilising an innovative method of cleaning the air using the bicycles themselves. ‘Beijing was a cycling city just 15 years ago,’ he points out. ‘That completely disappeared because of the [rise in] status of the car. I asked how could I make a design which gives value to the bicycle again?’
Partnering with ofo, China’s largest bike-sharing company (with around 20 million registered users riding over one million bicycles through 34 Chinese cities), he and his studio have developed a design for an air filter which attaches to the front handlebars, sucks in polluted air as it moves, cleans it, and releases the unpolluted air for the cyclist to breathe, while also (incrementally) cleaning the city’s air for everyone else.
With a prototype bicycle currently under construction, Roosegaarde explains that the best method of powering the bicycle’s filtration system is currently being explored; whether it will ultimately use pedal power, solar power, or some other renewable energy source remains to be decided. ‘But it should be self-sufficient,’ he insists.
This is just the latest of Roosegaarde’s ideas to help clean up the world’s urban environments. ‘The Smog Free Bicycle is a follow-up to the Smog Free Project, which I initiated three and a half years ago,’ he explains. ‘That was about the dream of clean air and asking “Why have cities become machines that are killing us?”’
One example of his designs, the seven-metre tall Smog Free Tower, creates a ‘bubble’ of clean, filtered air around the structure and is designed for use in public settings such as parks and courtyards. With an effective range of over 20m, it can create safe havens free from the majority of both PM2.5 and PM10 pollutants.
‘These are not the final solutions for smog – that would be clean energy and electric cars, of course,’ continues Roosegaarde. ‘But that’s going to take ten to 15 years, and I’m not going to wait for that!’ He hopes to begin launching the Smog Free Bicycles and Towers next year across countries such as India, Mexico and Colombia – with an eye also on highly polluted cities such as London – where he argues they could reduce air pollution by up to 15 per cent.
This was published in the October 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.