Abstract Epidemiological studies on health effects of outdoor air pollution are largely based on a single monitoring site to estimate the exposure of people living in urban areas. For such an approach two aspects are important: the temporal correlation and the spatial variation of the absolute levels of concentrations measured at different sites in an urban area. Whereas many studies have shown small spatial variability of fine particles in urban areas, little is known on how well a single monitoring station could represent the temporal and spatial variation of ultrafine particles across urban areas. In our study we investigated the temporal and spatial variation of particle number concentration (PNC) at four background sites in Augsburg, Germany. Two of them were influenced by traffic, one was placed in the outskirts of the city. The average PNC levels at two urban background sites with traffic impact were 16,943 cm − 3 and 20,702 cm − 3 , respectively, compared to 11,656 cm − 3 at the urban background site without traffic impact (ratio 1.5 to 1.8). The Spearman correlation coefficients between the monitoring sites were high ( r > 0.80). The pronounced differences in absolute PNC levels suggest that the use of a single monitoring station in long-term epidemiological studies must be insufficient to attribute accurate exposure levels of PNC to all study subjects. On the other hand, the high temporal correlations of PNC across the city area of Augsburg implicate that in epidemiological time-series studies the use of one single ambient monitoring site is an adequate approach for characterizing exposure to ultrafine particles.