Health perception and commuting choice: a survey experiment measuring behavioral trade-offs between physical activity benefits and pollution exposure risks

Yichun Fan, Juan Palacios, Mariana Arcaya, Rachel Luo, Siqi Zheng*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Previous literature suggests that active commuting has substantial health benefits. Yet, in polluted regions, it can also cause additional health risks by increasing riders’ pollution exposure and raising their inhalation rate. We examine the effect of perceived air pollution on stated commuting choices
using an on-site survey experiment for 2285 non-automobile commuters in Zhengzhou, a heavily polluted city in central China. We integrate a sequential randomized controlled trial in a survey where individuals in the treatment group received tailored information on their commuting-related pollution exposure, based on our 2 week peak-hour pollution monitoring campaign across transportation modes in the city. We find that travelers in Zhengzhou have
already adopted pollution prevention actions by favoring indoor commuting modes on polluted days. Individuals receiving personalized pollution exposure information by mode further decrease active commuting by 8.4 percentage points (95% CI: 5.1, 11.6), accompanied by a 14.7 percentage points (95% CI: 10.7, 18.3) increase in automobile commuting. Travellers make sub-optimal,
overly risk averse choices by reducing active commuting even for trips where epidemiological research suggests the exercise benefits outweigh pollution exposure risks. This pollution avoidance tendency significantly attenuates the effect of policies encouraging active commuting. Our findings show the intricately intertwined relationships between the public health targets of promoting active lifestyles and reducing pollution exposure, and between individual pollution avoidance and societal pollution mitigation
Original languageEnglish
Article number054026
Number of pages11
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 31 May 2021
Externally publishedYes

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