Do the Health Benefits of Cycling Outweigh the Danger?

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.

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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.”

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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.

3 thoughts on “Do the Health Benefits of Cycling Outweigh the Danger?

  1. I am really pleased with the increased investments from government and councils in cycling infrastructure over the last few years. If you are looking at the benefits for the person cycling and the society at large, I would think there is a very strong case for much larger investments. Cycling is great for mental and physical health, environmentally friendly, cost-effective, a fast way to get around crowded city centers and great for making social connections. The recent uptake in cycling is encouraging. More needs to be done to attract people who are interested in cycling but still see cycling as an unsafe activity. Even though cycling is more like to extend your life than shorten it, ultimately it is the perception that counts. We need more cycle paths but also areas around schools can be made more bike-friendly, cyclists can be better protected from a legal point of view and road user education could be improved. From my perspective, we should also look at our helmet law. The focus should be on preventing any accidents or fatalities, a helmet should probably be seen as the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. Too much emphasis has gone into insisting on personal protection and not enough on all the other things that can be done to make cycling safer. The chances of something seriously happening to you when you are cycling are very low but most of us know of cyclists who were hit by a car or doored and it is those stories that keep some people from cycling.

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    1. Yea agree. The benefit cost ratios that get calculated for cycleways are always way way higher than any other kind of transport infrastructure. There is a strong case for spending orders of magnitude more than we currently do, our politicians just largely choose to ignore this. But you’re right, it’s not just about physical infrastructure, there’s a whole ecosystem of laws and education that should be looked at too (some of which are being looked at to be fair).

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