Research, Urban Planning, Environment and Health

Boosting cycling in 17 countries could prevent up to 205,000 premature deaths each year

A paper in Environmental Health Perspectives estimates the health impact of a global shift to urban cycling by 2050

22.12.2021
Photo: Susan Q Yin / Unsplash

A new study has estimated for the first time the health benefits of a widespread shift to cycling for urban transport in 17 countries on five continents . The study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives , was led by a team from Colorado State University and the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), a centre supported by the "la Caixa" Foundation. The results show that up to 205,424 premature deaths per year could be avoided if the 17 countries included in the study achieved high levels of urban cycling by 2050.

The study compared the current cycling trends versus a hypothetical 2050 scenario in which the average city achieved the same levels of urban cycling than the best performing city of the country . The high cycling levels scenarios assumed that the countries introduced policies that have been shown to bring a quick increase in biking levels: retrofitting biking infrastructure onto existing roads to create backbone networks in arterial streets, small residential streets, and intercity roads; implementation of bike-share systems in large cities; laws and enforcement practices to better protect active transport; investment in walking facilities and public transport to offer transport options that can be combined with bike trips; elimination of policies that support additional motorized vehicle use, such as free parking and fuel subsidies; and establishment of congestion pricing, vehicle-kilometers traveled fees, and impact fees to charge a price for driving.

“It is well known that shifting from passive to active transport has many associated health benefits and also contributes to a reduction of CO 2 emissions. Our study focused on the impacts of a shift from car use to cycling in premature mortality”, says Julen Egiguren, ISGlobal researcher and first author of the study.

“We know that people will only cycle when it is safe and therefore we urgently need a safe and segregated cycling network that allows people to reach all their destinations. Furthermore, reducing speed limits to 30 km/h in all streets within city boundaries would create a much safer environment for cyclists and pedestrians”, states Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, director of the Urban Planning, Environment and Health Initiative at ISGlobal.

The 17 countries included were Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Russia, South Africa, United Kingdom, and the United States . The study followed the quantitative health impact assessment methodology, which considered the benefits associated with physical activity and the risks associated with traffic fatalities and inhalation of air pollution during the bike trip. The study focused on the adult population (20 to 64 years old) of the 17 countries and included the impact of both mechanical and electric bikes.

The results show that in the best case scenario, where the highest levels of urban cycling where achieved and 100% of the new cycling trips replaced car trips, 205,424 annual premature deaths could be avoided. In a more conservative scenario, where only 8% of new bicycle trips would replace car trips, thenumber of annual avoidable deaths could be 18,589.

"This is the first study to estimate the health co-benefits of urban cycling at a global scale, and in addition, we modeled the impact additional measures to promote urban cycling would have in the future", commented David Rojas-Rueda, senior author of the study. "Our study found that global biking policies may provide important mortality benefits in 2050 and should be seen as a call to implement policies that support sustainable mobility and a healthy urban design . Current policies will impact our future and the health of future generations", he added.

Summary of results

Country

Avoidable premature deaths per year

 

Scenario 1

Scenario 2

India

6,987

87,337

China

4,127

25,153

Indonesia

1,437

17,968

Russia

1,302

16,274

United States

1,227

15,309

Brazil

859

10,747

South Africa

707

8,839

Mexico

571

7,133

Egypt

399

4,241

Germany

206

2,749

United Kingdom

185

2,308

Japan

181

2,271

France

160

2,132

Italy

100

1,257

Canada

96

1,205

Netherlands

28

357

Denmark

17

144

     

Total

18,589

205,424

Reference

Egiguren J., Nieuwenhuijsen M.J., Rojas-Rueda D. Premature Mortality of 2050 High Bike Use Scenarios in 17 Countries. Environmental Health Perspectives 129:12 CID: 127002. 2021. https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP9073