Dutch researchers have done an interesting analysis of the likely benefits and harms – for individuals and society more broadly – of encouraging a shift from cars to bicycles for short daily trips.
They weigh up the positives – people being more physically active, decreased greenhouse gas and other pollution emissions – against the negatives, including cyclists’ exposure to air pollutants and risks from traffic accidents.
Amongst other things, they conclude that the beneficial effect of increased physical activity due to cycling resulted in about 9 times more gains in life-years than the losses in life years due to increased inhaled air pollution doses and traffic accidents.
But do the findings have any signficance beyond the Netherlands?
Absolutely, says public health advocate, Associate Professor Chris Rissel from the University of Sydney, who has provided the analysis of the study below for Croakey readers. This latest study adds to a wealth of evidence to support the public health benefits of policies to encourage cycling, he says.
Chris Rissel writes:
In a recent paper by Jeroen de Hartog et al in Environmental Health Perspectives, the authors examine whether the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks.
They found that “beneficial effects of increased physical activity are substantially larger (3–14 months gained) than the potential mortality effect of increased inhaled air pollution doses (0.8–40 days lost) and the increase in traffic accidents (5–9 days lost). Societal benefits are even larger because of a modest reduction in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and traffic accidents.”
This is not the first time the benefits and risks of cycling have been examined, with the British Medical Association concluding in 1994 that the benefits outweighed the risks by a whopping 20 to 1.
As a policy solution to address air pollution, traffic congestion, physical inactivity and chronic diseases, encouraging more cycling is a clear winner.
There are few strategies for which there is strong evidence that that it is effective, feasible, cost-effective and supported by the majority of the target population.
The risk of cycling, the perceived danger, is the one aspect of cycling that holds it back. In some places, like Sydney, this perception of danger is greater than others (say Darwin).
Often this perception is exaggerated, with those holding the greatest fears never having cycled on the roads, and never used the routes that people who regularly cycle do. Regular riders in car dominated cities often have learnt bike friendly routes that make cycling feasible.
Clearly more cycling infrastructure, like separated bike paths and on-road bike lanes, would make it easier and reduce risks further, and this should be a priority for government. It is difficult to attract new riders unless they can try cycling in what they see as a safe environment.
The City of Sydney is doing exactly this, having just completed a separated bicycle path route from the Harbour Bridge to the Anzac Bridge, linking northern Sydney and the inner West to each other and to the city.
A new public health program in Copenhagen carries the slogan “It’s safer to cycle than sit on the sofa” and when we consider the known health risks of inactivity, taking a chance with cycling is a winner.