The Health Benefits of Cycling

The Health Benefits of Cycling

19.4.2017

Large amounts of public space in cities are assigned to accommodating motor traffic

While physical-intensive labour and mobility activities have decreased over the decades resulting in sedentarism and the obesity crisis, motor vehicle usage is still on the rise. Continuing expansions of road and highway infrastructure as well as increasing motor vehicle sales and ownership are contributing factors to increasing motor vehicle volumes congesting our cities, resulting not only in physical hazards per se, but also in high levels of air and noise pollution as well as greenhouse gas emissions, putting environmental quality and our health at risk. Large amounts of public space in cities are assigned to accommodating motor traffic, leaving very little space for green and open spaces that could provide urban resilience, beautify our cities, improve our social cohesion and be used for recreational activities.

Promoting a mode shift to cycling has been proposed as a promising strategy to overcome the severe motor traffic burden in cities

Promoting a mode shift to cycling has been proposed as a promising strategy to overcome the severe motor traffic burden in cities and its associated risk factors. In the urban context, where most trips have a distance of about 5 km, the bicycle provides a feasible, healthy and clean alternative mode of transport. Cycling can not only help us reduce the burdensome motor vehicle volumes and its associated emission, but can also increase our total physical activity levels with unlikely substitution of physical activity from other domains. Regular cycling at sufficient intensity is associated with improved cardiovascular health and a 10% reduction in risk for premature mortality. Cyclists were shown to accumulate 2 hours of additional physical activity per week, simply by choosing the bicycle as their preferred mode of transport. As a result, regular cyclists also tend to have a lower body weight compared to car drivers. Cycling can also contribute to health equity. In contrast to sports or exercise, the bicycle is an equitable and affordable form of physical activity – also providing a mean of transport.

Cyclists were repeatedly reported to be less stressed, happier and more satisfied

The bicycle is a non-emitting mode of transport and can help reduce hazardous levels of air and noise pollution as well as greenhouse gas emissions and can therefore contribute to mitigating climate change, a problem in which the transport sector has a large responsibility.

Cycling can also affect our mood status and stress levels and can contribute to better mental health. Cyclists were repeatedly reported to be less stressed, happier and more satisfied.

Cycling can also affect our mood status and stress levels and can contribute to better mental health

By 2050, almost 70% of the world population will live in cities, which makes sustainable urban development a pressing issue. In cities where space is already scarce and will become more limited, the bicycle provides a mean of transport that occupies only little public space. Car drivers take parking for granted, being unaware that their vehicles occupy large amounts of public space that can be used in other ways to promote public health, social equity and cohesion. In a one car parking, 10 bicycles could be parked, freeing-up public space and returning this space to the citizens. 

Increases in cycling can also contribute to social cohesion with people on the streets meeting each other, contributing to lively neighbourhoods. In this sense, increases in cycling can also contribute to a better safety perception by creating “eyes on the streets”.

The health benefits resulting of regular cycling are much larger than the associated risks

Despite concerns that the bicycle is a vulnerable mode of transport and the potential for increased personal exposure to air pollution, a recent systematic review showed that the health benefits resulting of regular cycling are much larger than the associated risks. Benefits are due to the increases in physical activity and these outweigh associated risks of air pollution exposure or the risk of traffic incidents. To realize all these benefits of cycling, it is time for more investment in safe, quality and connective cycling infrastructure, which were repeatedly shown to boost levels of cycling. Notable success stories come from the hailed Dutch and Danish cycling utopias, where investment into cycling is highest. But even they’ve had their share of problems. During the urban modernization of cities after the Second World War, cars became a dominating force on the streets of Copenhagen, and modal share of bicycles fell to as low as 10% before the city sought to tackle the problem through a combination of car-free days, the removal of parking spaces and making areas for pedestrian use. However, the process took many decades to implement and needed long term planning and commitment, something which we need as well.

More information

7 ways that bicycles can make cities healthier (infographic)