Expert Commentary

Health risks and benefits of urban cycling compared with car use

2011 study published in the British Medical Journal examining the health and environmental benefits of public cycling initiatives.

Since the 2005 launch of Velo’v in Lyon, France, public bike-sharing systems have increasingly been seen as a way to promote healthier lifestyles while reducing urban congestion and pollution. Stockholm, Seville and Paris were early proponents; Milan, Brussels and Montreal soon followed; and now Mexico City, London, Boston and many other cities have rolled out programs.

As bike-sharing programs have spread, enthusiasm has been tempered with concern about the potential increase in accidents and even fatalities. A 2011 study published in the British Medical Journal, “The Health Risks and Benefits of Cycling in Urban Environments Compared with Car Use: Health Impact Assessment Study,” used data from a four-year-old bike-sharing program in Barcelona with over 180,000 cyclists to weigh the health benefits of the program against the increased risks.

The study’s findings include:

  • Barcelona’s program increased the number of cycling trips by city residents by 30%. Of these, 60% had shifted from being regular public transport users, 30% from regular walkers, and 10% from relying on their cars for transportation. These were sharply up from previous studies, which found that bike sharing led to an average 3% increase in cycling.
  • Compared with residents who drive, those using the city’s bike-sharing system experienced an annual increase in 0.03 deaths from traffic accidents and 0.13 deaths from air pollution. However, as a result of increased physical activity, 12.46 deaths were avoided annually, meaning that overall, the program helped prevent 12.28 deaths per year.
  • The program was calculated to have reduced overall CO2 emissions by approximately nine million kilograms annually.

The researchers conclude that “low cost public bicycle sharing systems aimed at encouraging commuters to cycle are worth implementing in other cities, not only for the health benefits but also for potential co-benefits such as a reduction in air pollution and greenhouse gases.” They suggest that future research should look at how to best implement bike-sharing programs.

Tags: bicycling, bicycle, bikes, cars, congestion, safety

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