A friend who works in healthcare put me onto this podcast about a study on benefits of cycling recently published in the British Medical Journal (only 20 minutes so not too onerous). The authors discuss a piece of research they’ve just completed which aims to answer the question: “do the health benefits of cycling outweigh the crash danger?” Other articles about it are here and here.If you have the right subscription you can read the paper here.
The author said that he got interested in this when he read that only 4% of Britons cycle to work, despite 39% owning bicycles. And 64% of these people say that cycling on the roads is just too dangerous. He wanted to quantify whether this huge perception of danger was justified.
“We know there is a perception that cycling in commuter traffic is dangerous, and that this perception may be putting people off actively commuting by bike to work.
“Now, as a result of this research, we can to some extent quantify the risk associated with this form of commuting.
They looked at medical records of 230,000 people across Britain matching up how they commuted with their injury records and general health.
What they found was that people who cycled to work do have an increased propensity for getting injured in crashes, but that they also had significantly decreased propensity for suffering cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and many other health problems. It gets a little messy because people who choose to cycle to work tend to make healthy choices in other areas of their lives too, but the study did try to correct for this, and the ones who cycled to work still came out healthier than the ones who don’t. And the health benefits still significantly outweighed any heightened crash risks.
“So, the benefits offset the risks, and this should be encouraging, but more needs to done to make commuter cycling safe”.
This result won’t be surprising to most transporty people – there have been many previous studies which have found similar conclusions. But it is encouraging that it’s still the case.
The author concludes:
“We probably need to look at sacrificing some road space to make segregated cycle paths a reality in this country, and that obviously costs money, that’s one of the issues. But the Government’s own statistics support investment; the Department of Health and Department of Transport statistics put the benefit-cost ratio at 5:1 and 13:1, so for every pound you spend on active transport infrastructure you can expect back from the economy between 5 and 13 pounds of benefit. Although it would be costly to make that sort of investment, we think there is the evidence there to support that.”
So one of the big positives of people cycling to work is the health benefits, including reduced chance of heart disease, diabetes and cancer, which outweigh any crash risks. So much so that the British Department of Health estimates that cycleways pay for themselves five times over.
I think a fair chunk of New Zealanders are now starting to get this message, but there’s still a few noisy ones who clearly don’t. I think it’s important to make sure all our key decision-makers (Councillors, MPs, Community Board Members) are aware of the conclusions that these sorts of scientific studies are reaching to make sure decisions around things like cycleways are well-informed.
And on a personal level, if you’re keen on improving your health, then swapping your car for a bike is a scientifically proven way to do it.