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Archive for July, 2021

How ordinary Kiwi cyclists started being seen as ‘elitist’

By Timothy Welch

The Conversation

Something strange has happened to the perception of cyclists and cycling in the more than 200 years they’ve been around.

Once a novelty, bike riding has moved from being a critical transport mode to a children’s pastime to now being popularly perceived as an elitist activity.

This was readily apparent after the recent “liberate the lane” protest on Auckland’s harbour bridge. Cyclists who broke a police barrier and rode onto the motorway were variously described as privileged, white, entitled and, yes, elitist.

Ask most people what a cyclist looks like and they’ll more than likely conjure an image of the stereotypical rider – decked out head to toe in lycra, absurd aerodynamic helmet, wraparound sunglasses and, of course, a futuristic bike capable of slicing through the headwinds.

But that image owes much more to marketing than reality. In the 1960s and 1970s, the market was full of cheap and reliable steel ten-speed bikes. These were fantastic commuters with minimal sex appeal. At that time, the stereotypical cyclist was just an average person.

Then the 1980s welcomed the newly invented mountain bike and the cycling world splintered into different camps. Road cyclists split into high-speed racing, triathlon and long-distance sub-tribes. Along the way, marketing and business were eager to sell more and more specialised gear.

But mainstream cyclists have always been there, wearing everyday clothing, obeying the rules of the road and riding modest bicycles. Their averageness has contributed to their invisibility. For this mainstream, however, one thing always remained constant: cycling is cheap.

Low cost and affordable

Cars are costly to own, especially compared to a bicycle. Thanks to the meticulous research of New Zealander John Meekings, we can directly compare those costs. Tracking his expenses from initial purchase for ten years and across 100,000km, he calculated the total cost of owning and operating his bike was about 4 cents/km.

Logically, for cycling to be an elitist transport mode, the cost of car ownership would have to be considerably lower. So, is it? The Automobile Association did the maths using a very moderately priced NZ$26,600 car (we’re in Suzuki Swift territory here).

Taking into account variable and fixed costs, with an average annual driving distance of 14,000km, the cost of ownership was $21 per day. That works out to about 54 cents/km, or more than 13 times the cost of bicycle ownership.

At this difference, there is more than enough money left over for the average cyclist to buy a full lycra suit with all the accoutrements and still spend vastly less than what a typical driver pays.

Better yet, cyclists could extend their mobility with an e-bike, which makes cycling accessible to a large proportion of the population. Even the most expensive e-bike is a fraction of the price of a new car, not counting the unpriced environmental costs of car ownership. A good e-bike costs less than the credit available under the government’s electric vehicle “feebate” scheme.

Equitable and egalitarian

Cycling is far more widespread than we often think. More than 50% of Aucklanders own a bike, and many use that bike quite frequently. Cyclists in Auckland hail from every corner of the city, not just from the wealthiest enclaves.

Bikes are also an accessible and often vital transport mode for minority populations. Contrary to the accusation cycling is predominantly white and middle-class, for example, recent research indicates it’s just as common among Māori as with Pākehā – though Māori may be more reliant on the bicycle.

Rather than being elitist, then, cycling is perhaps one of the most equitable forms of transport.

Certainly, Auckland’s proposed $780 million bicycle and pedestrian bridge does little to reduce the elitist image, but it is also not what cycling activists were demanding.

Contrary to the elitist stereotyping, cyclists aren’t asking for gold-plated cycleways and separate infrastructure. They do want a fair share of the country’s existing road network set aside as a relatively safe place to commute – space for which they have paid through taxes and rates.

Even the most extravagantly lycra-clad cyclist, let alone the humble everyday pedal pusher, spends less on getting around than the most frugal motorist. By any such measure, if riders on cycleways are elitists, then so are pedestrians on footpaths.

[Source: RNZ]

Doctors Might Have Been Focusing on the Wrong Asthma Triggers

The pandemic was a big social experiment that sent asthma attacks plummeting.

By Sarah Zhang

Nicole Lawson spent the beginning of the pandemic incredibly worried about her daughter, who has asthma. Five-year-old Scarlett’s asthma attacks were already landing her in the ER or urgent care every few months. Now a scary new virus was spreading. Respiratory viruses are known triggers of asthma attacks, and doctors also feared at the time that asthma itself could lead to more severe coronavirus infections. So Lawson’s family in Ohio hunkered down quickly and masked up often to keep Scarlett healthy.

The ensuing months, to everyone’s surprise, turned into “this beautiful year,” Lawson told me. Scarlett hasn’t had a single asthma attack. Not a single visit to the ER. Nothing. She’s breathing so much better, and all it took was a global pandemic that completely upended normal life.

All around the country, doctors have spent the pandemic wondering why their patients with asthma were suddenly doing so well. Asthma attacks have plummeted. Paediatric ICUs have sat strangely empty. “We braced ourselves for significant problems for the millions of people living with asthma,” says David Stukus, Scarlett’s doctor at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “It was the complete opposite. It’s amazing.” (Fears about people with asthma getting more severe COVID-19 infections haven’t been borne out either.) Studies in other countries, including England, Scotland, and South Korea, also found big drops in hospital and doctor’s-office visits for asthma attacks.

The massive global experiment that is the pandemic is now leading doctors to rethink some long-held assumptions about the disease. Asthma is a chronic condition that occasionally flares up, leading to 3,500 deaths and 1.6 million emergency-room visits a year in the United States. These acute attacks can be triggered by a number of environmental factors: viruses, pollen, mould, dust mites, rodents, cockroaches, pet dander, smoke, air pollution, etc. Doctors have often scrutinized allergens that patients can control at home, such as pests and second-hand smoke. But patients have stayed at home for a year and suffered dramatically fewer asthma attacks—suggesting bigger roles for other triggers, especially routine cold and flu viruses, which nearly vanished this year with social distancing and masks.

With life in the U.S. snapping back to normal, asthma doctors and patients are facing another new reality. Masks are going away; schools will be reopening in the fall. The pandemic unexpectedly reduced asthma attacks, and now doctors and patients have to navigate between what they know is possible in extraordinary conditions and what is practical in more ordinary ones.


The most compelling evidence that asthma attacks truly did go down during the pandemic exists because of a stroke of good luck. Back in 2018, Elliot Israel, a pulmonologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in Boston, began asking Black and Hispanic or Latino adults with asthma to track their attacks at home for a study called PREPARE. (These groups have disproportionate rates of severe asthma, compared with white patients.) Israel intended to compare two different ways of using long-term asthma medication, such as inhaled steroids. His team enrolled its last participant—patient No. 1,201—in March 2020. The COVID-19 shutdowns began a week later.

“We were very lucky,” Israel told me. Because of the study’s timing, his team had plenty of data from before the pandemic. And because the participants were filling out monthly questionnaires from home, the shutdowns did not affect the data collection.

Meanwhile, Israel, like his colleagues across the country, was noticing an eerie lack of non-coronavirus patients. Hospital visits for heart attacks and strokes were also dropping during the pandemic. Were asthma patients just avoiding the hospital because they were afraid of catching the virus? “That was the initial thought: What if these people are suffering at home?” says Justin Salciccioli, a pulmonologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a co-author with Israel on the resulting paper about asthma attacks during the pandemic.

The answer became clear as the monthly questionnaires started rolling in. The number of attacks the participants suffered at home really was dropping. It fell by 40 percent after the onset of the pandemic. “We know that this isn’t reluctance to go to the emergency room,” Israel said. “This is a true, real decrease.”

In that case, why? Israel and his team didn’t see a clear pattern connected to changes in air pollution. People who normally worked outside the home, however, had bigger decreases in asthma attacks than those who worked at home (65 percent compared with 23 percent), perhaps because they were no longer being exposed to viruses and irritants at work. And people whose type of asthma is driven by environmental triggers also saw bigger improvements than those whose asthma is driven more by underlying inflammation. All of this suggests that people really were able to avoid triggers during the pandemic.

Ordinary respiratory viruses may play a bigger role in asthma attacks than previously thought, Israel said. People with asthma, like everyone else who masked up and practised social distancing, were this year exposed to many fewer viruses known to trigger flare-ups. Even asymptomatic infections that normally go unnoticed might cause an asthma attack in someone whose airways are especially sensitive. “That extra irritation, that extra inflammation, pushes them over the edge,” Israel said.

Asthma experts I spoke with all agreed that reduced viral exposure likely played a part in the drop, but the pandemic changed so many things at once that other factors are hard to rule out. Staying at home might have made it easier for people to keep up with their regular long-term asthma medication. They were also no longer exposed to potential triggers at work or school, such as diesel from school buses or chemicals in cleaning products. Asthma can be very individual, with exact triggers varying from person to person. But the overall picture is impossible to ignore: The sweeping changes to our social lives during the pandemic made asthma a lot easier to control.


If viruses indeed play a bigger factor in asthma attacks than initially thought, doctors might have been mistakenly fixating on other factors. “We’ve forever talked about the environmental contribution to asthma. There are pollutants and irritants and allergens inside the home,” says Stukus, who is also a member of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America’s Medical Scientific Council. If these factors really were so important, though, asthma attacks should have gone up, not down, during the pandemic.

It’s long been routine for doctors to question parents of kids with asthma about dust mites or cockroaches or smoking in the home, says Christopher Carroll, a paediatric-critical-care doctor at Connecticut Children’s. He’s asked these questions himself. But, he says, “the unstated implication when you’re asking about triggers like that is that those are causes of your child’s asthma.” This has the effect of blaming patients or parents of patients, when factors outside the home might actually play a bigger role. “We have this paternalistic attitude in medicine,” adds Janine Zee-Cheng, a paediatrician in Indiana. “You’re non-compliant with your medicines. Or you’re not monitoring your kid’s meds. Or you’re smoking indoors.” It’s “doctor knows best”—but the pandemic has exposed how much doctors did not know.

Rethinking the role of viruses in asthma attacks is a bit more complicated in practice. COVID-19 precautions tamped down every other respiratory virus, but those precautions won’t last forever. Cases of respiratory syncytial virus, one cause of the common cold, have already spiked. Carroll expects that he will keep wearing a mask in hospitals, but masks are coming off everywhere else. More and more now, wearing one means sticking out. And unfortunately, the health benefits of a face mask have also been overwhelmed by its potency as a political symbol.

This is what worries Lawson, as Scarlett goes off with her friends and begins pre-K in the fall. She can’t keep Scarlett cocooned forever. Her daughter will be exposed to viruses. “I would be lying if I said it didn’t make me anxious,” Lawson said. Masking up in the winter seems like a no-brainer, but she can already imagine the judgment her family might face. This choice isn’t about politics, though. It’s about Scarlett’s asthma. Lawson remembers the two Thanksgivings in a row when Scarlett got so sick, she had to be hospitalized. It didn’t happen this past Thanksgiving, and she hopes it never happens again.

[Source: The Atlantic]

‘Bin Diesel’ and ‘Truck Norris’ on the job

Emission Impossible Ltd would like to give a shout-out to Hutt City Council’s new EV waste collection fleet.

Electric recycling trucks Bin Diesel, Truck Norris, Trucky McTruckface and Recyclosaurus Rex are now on the road making collections in Wellington. Bruce Springclean, Trash Gordon and Chitty Chitty Bin Bin are soon to follow.

The electric vehicles are operated by Waste Management as part of a new Hutt City Council kerbside waste and recycling contract which will see the company taking on the region’s waste until 2029.

To promote recycling in the community, Hutt City Council asked the public to submit names for each of the trucks, then put it to a final vote via Facebook where the names were recently announced. 

Waste Management’s Wellington EV fleet is now on par with Auckland’s and once the three extra vehicles arrive, the city will have the company’s largest EV fleet in the country. 

The new Hutt City contract is described as a “massive undertaking” which involves general waste wheelie bins, mixed recycling wheelie bins, (opt-in) garden waste wheelie bins and glass recycling crates being delivered to around 40,000 households in the region.

Dan Toma collects glass in EV Trucky McTruckface

[Source: EVs and Beyond]