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City cycling: Healthful or hazardous to health?

Science writer Lesley Evans Ogden cycled through seven European and Canadian cities, including Montreal, pictured above.

Are the health benefits of city cycling worth the hazards?

That’s the question explored in an article published last week in the online magazine Mosaic, a new science publication funded by the London-based Wellcome Trust.

For the article, science writer Lesley Evans Ogden cycled through seven European and Canadian cities (Paris, Copenhagen, London, Amsterdam, Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal), talking to everyday cyclists and experts alike. Her purpose: “to weigh up the risks and benefits of city cycling, and explore what can be learned where public health, urban design and transport engineering meet.”

“In cities across the world, researchers, planners and policy makers are examining the many potential plus points of cycling,” she explains. “Increasing the proportion of people who cycle or walk, rather than drive, could not only reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, but also lower people’s risk of developing a number of diseases. But at what cost? To what extent does cycling in cities expose you to the risk of injury or death? What makes some cities so much safer and attractive for cyclists than others?”

Significant health-care savings

As Ogden points out, population-level studies have found that getting people out of cars and onto bicycles significantly reduces health-care costs — about $1,800 for each person with a 3-mile daily commute, according to one of the French experts she interviewed.

Other European researchers have come to similar conclusions. Writes Ogden (with British spellings):

Accounting for physical activity, exposure to accidents and air pollution, [a team of Danish researchers] found that the overall burden of disease — including heart disease, stroke, type II diabetes, breast cancer, colon cancer, cardiopulmonary disease and lung cancer — was reduced in people who cycled. The positive health effects of increased cycling were more than a third larger than the potential loss of health from bicycle accidents and air pollution. …

In a different study based in Copenhagen, researchers analysed data from over 13,000 women and 17,000 men to explore the impact of physical activity on mortality. Even after adjusting for other factors, such as physical activity in leisure time, they found that people who did not cycle to work experienced a 39 per cent higher mortality rate than those who did. In other words, cycling improved longevity.

Safety in numbers

Of course, not all converts to cycling live longer than if they had stayed in their cars.

“It’s important to point out,” writes Ogden, “that while fatal accidents might be reported as small ‘population-level costs’ in public health studies, they have tragic, catastrophic costs for individuals and their loved ones.”

The obvious solution is to make the environment for city cycling safer. “Unless you are travelling at breakneck speed … there is nothing inherently dangerous about cycling — it’s the environment you’re in that creates danger,” Ogden notes.

“Safety improves in a city as the total number of cyclists increases,” she said. “This effect has been seen in studies in Denmark, the Netherlands, 14 other European countries, Australia and 68 cities in California.”

“Motorist behavior probably contributes to this phenomenon,” she adds. “In places like Copenhagen — where four out of five individuals have access to a bicycle — most drivers are also cyclists, and so are accustomed to sharing public space with bicycles.”

Why U.S. cycling took a different direction

Ogden also offers some fascinating — and surprising — history on why American cities are not (yet) as bike-friendly as many European ones:

In North America in the 1970s, cyclists — or at least the most vocal advocacy groups purporting to represent them — did not want to get out of the way. So-called vehicular cycling was emerging, a philosophy that has influenced transport policy in both North America and Britain. Fathered by Californian industrial engineer and cycling activist John Forester, vehicular cycling encourages cyclists to travel on the road in mixed traffic. On his website, Forester writes: “Vehicular cycling, so named because you are acting as the driver of a vehicle, just as the traffic laws require, is faster and more enjoyable, so that the plain joy of cycling overrides the annoyance of even heavy traffic.”

In 1970s California, lots of athletic cyclists were forming touring groups for riding fast on roads, explains Anne Lusk, a Research Scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health. Back then, she says, such groups may have legitimately feared that US adoption of Dutch-style cycle paths would restrict bike access to roads. “At the time, paths were becoming crowded by joggers, walkers, in-line skaters and baby-carriage pushers,” says Lusk, so cycling advocates fought forcefully against proposals for cycle paths.

The vehicular cycling philosophy became incorporated into US guidelines for transport design, and its influence was felt for decades, limiting the building of physically separated cycle tracks and putting cyclists on the road with cars. “It’s something that really stuck in North America,” says Meghan Winters, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University, Canada. Asked if the philosophy of vehicular cycling is evidence-based, she says no. “But it’s something that was sticky and was adopted very broadly for very, very many years,” she adds.

From ‘impressive’ to ‘terrifying’

You’ll have to read the article to get Ogden’s cycling details about each of the seven cities she visited for this article, but she seems to have been particularly impressed with Cophenhagen, where cycling is considered more  a mode of transportation than a form of exercise — so much so that many Danes don’t even cite it when surveyed about being physically active.

Still, Ogden had her complaints about Cophenhagen as well. 

“In rush hour in Amsterdam and Copenhagen, on some of the busiest cycle routes, I experienced that same sense of stress, congestion and defensiveness that I’ve so often experienced in bumper-to-bumper car traffic,” she says in a Q&A interview that ran with the article. “I saw some of the same bad behaviours one often sees from humans behind the wheel of a car: people trying to cut in and out, jackrabbits trying to race ahead of the crowd, and people impatient with the slower moving cyclists.”

The difference, she adds, is that ” in heavy, segregated bike traffic, you’re not breathing your neighbour’s fumes (unless of course they had extra beans for dinner). And there’s a sense of collective consciousness, connection and mutual understanding when you’re perched on a bike seat less than an arm’s length from your fellow travellers, without a large metal casing delineating your space.”

The two cities that Ogden seems to have felt the least safe as a cyclist were Toronto (“a hostile environment”) and London (“most terrifying”).

I wish she had come to the Twin Cities.

You can read the article in full on the Mosaic website.

Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by David Frenkel on 03/11/2014 - 10:38 am.

    Urban dangers

    It is a rare occasion when I go biking on the road in the Twin Cities and don’t have a near miss with a car where I have the right of way. Bikes need the bumper sticker campaign motorcycles have been using for years about looking out for motorcycles. If motorcycles aren’t seen by car drivers bicyclists don’t have a chance.

    • Submitted by Jim Young on 03/11/2014 - 02:13 pm.

      Urban dangers

      Interesting – I bike all the time in the TC area and seldom have near misses. When I do, I mentally review what happened so I can watch for and avoid that sort of situation again. Part of my “avoidance” is biking on routes where there isn’t a lot of automobile congestion. When that’s not possible, I watch the automobiles like a hawk so I can try to figure out what they intend to do.

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 03/11/2014 - 04:57 pm.

      My Experience

      While urban biking thousands of miles per year for many years, I have been struck by motor vehicles several times. The last vehicle to hit me was a motorcycle.

      I have found that it is not the mode that makes the person, it is the person that makes the mode. A self-centered and rude individual will take that behavior to whatever mode of transportation they are using. Likewise, a polite and accommodating person will conduct themselves in that fashion publicly, regardless of their travel mode.

  2. Submitted by Neal Gendler on 03/11/2014 - 12:50 pm.

    Follow the rules

    I give bikers as much space as possible, even following them when passing looks unsafe. But bicyclists who want to travel on streets must follow the same rules as auto drivers and stop at red lights and stop signs when there’s cross traffic!

    Although the majority of bikers I’ve driven near do not act as if they’re morally superior to traffic rules, a significant minority seem to, and quite frighteningly. My unwelcome experiences with bike riders have included more than one trying to pass me on the right as I began a long-signaled right turn from a stop sign, and a biker going against traffic and through a red light at six-lane Hennepin Avenue. Only peripheral vision and near-subliminal reflex slamming on brakes* prevented me from hitting those guys. (*The kind of thing where you say, “I don’t know what caused me to to do that.”)

    I’ve also been the victim of a hit-and-run biker (!), a guy with a beer can in one hand going through a red light on Nicollet Avenue and hitting my car, which was the third one entering the intersection on a green light.

    More times than I can remember, a biker has startled me — and risked his or her neck — by cutting in front of me in slow-moving traffic and going through stop signs and red lights when I have the right of way. And I’m always concerned that a person biking on ice streets is going to slip and go down right in front of me.

    I’m strongly in favor of bike-only lanes physically separated from auto traffic. But they still won’t solve the problem of bikers who think they can cross intersections without stopping for cross traffic.

    • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 03/11/2014 - 03:22 pm.

      Stats aren’t in the favor of drivers

      as to who breaks rules/laws more often:

      Quite a few different studies found within those posts. But even here in Minneapolis, a comprehensive review of bike crashes found motorists at fault slightly more often than bicyclists: (pg 17 has some interesting notes, including that in all hit and runs involving bikes and cars, 93% of them saw the motorist flee).

      This isn’t to flame drivers. Certainly there are laws that reflect the geometry and design of our transportation network, and breaking them (on bike or in car) shouldn’t be acceptable. We need street designs, even on busy commercial corridors, that slow traffic down to ~20 mph rather than 30-40 mph. On streets without protected bike lanes or cycletracks, motorists aren’t delayed much (if at all) if behind a bicyclist. This makes incidents that do happen (between cars and bikes or peds) less likely to end in serious injury or death. It also levels the playing field a little for travel time on all those short trips Alex B points out, increasing bike mode share and thus safety in numbers.

    • Submitted by Tom Pryor on 03/11/2014 - 04:11 pm.

      Equal Opportunity Rule-Breakers

      I walk, drive, and bike on my commute depending upon the season and weather, so I have an opportunity to be annoyed by drivers, bikers, and pedestrians in turn. No one can deny that some bikers break the rules, but it’s equally true that some drivers are rule-breakers. Drivers speed, run red lights, coast through stop signs, turn without signaling, cut people off, text and drive, drive drunk, and on and on and on. But when a driver breaks the rules, we tend to blame the individual. And when a person on a bike breaks the rules, we tend to ascribe that behavior to bicyclists as a group. I don’t doubt that you’ve had some bad experiences with bikers, but it’s not because bikers are rule breakers. It’s because bikers are people, and sometimes people break rules.

  3. Submitted by craig furguson on 03/11/2014 - 01:04 pm.

    Vehicular cycling

    This is an interesting concept that I have never heard of. I’ve been a fair-weather commuter from the suburbs to downtown Minneapolis for many years and I’ve always adhered to “defend your lane” If you ride on the shoulder, the cars drive you off the road vs if you ride as a vehicle would travel, abet on the side of the road. I do the same on my motorcycle, only riding nearer the center line. Otherwise cars try to share a lane. I have more issues on my bike in the suburbs than in Minneapolis. In the suburbs people don’t look or even sometimes tell to to get on a walking path or sidewalk.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/12/2014 - 08:55 am.

      Craig, your bike driving even if you don’t realize it.

      You may not realize it, but your bike driving when you “defend” your lane. There’s two things you should know. 1) I’ve been riding in SLP my whole life as well as MPLS, and I’ve never been driven off the road by a car driver. Drivers don’t encroach on the shoulder just because someone’s riding a bike there. And remember, it’s not the driver who sees you that’s gonna hit you. Stay away from the traffic, your always one distracted driver away from having a bad day and drivers are more distracted now than ever. 2) You’re breaking the law. Unless your riding in a designated bike lane you have no lane to “defend”. MN statute requires bicycles ride as far to the right as practicable:

      There’s one real big problem with “assertive” bike riding on the road… physics. 1+ ton vehicles colliding with 35 pound bikes will always yield predictable and unfortunate results for the person riding the bike.

  4. Submitted by Alex Bauman on 03/11/2014 - 01:46 pm.

    healthier than driving anyway

    It’s interesting that you often see media articles weighing the health benefits and risks of cycling, but you never see articles about the health risks of driving. The science is clear that driving is risky both individually and societally, it offers no health benefit, and is not necessary for the majority of trips, 69% of which are two miles or less according to a 2009 survey. Yet this practice is never questioned.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/11/2014 - 03:09 pm.

    Twofold response

    Urban cycling can be hazardous in multiple ways. One, as David Frenkel has mentioned, the possibility of being bashed by an inattentive driver. Even if the cyclist is the one at fault, there are real disadvantages to being forced to argue your case from a hospital bed. I agree that a campaign similar to the motorcyclists’ might be effective.

    The other way that urban cycling can be hazardous is that there are frequently annoying pedestrians around who think they’re entitled to some measure of public space. Even though the moral inferiority of pedestrians has been well-documented over the years, many of them continue to believe that they, too, are somehow entitled to cross streets, make use of paved city paths that they’ve helped pay for, and otherwise make nuisances of themselves for any self-respecting cyclists.

    A daily pedestrian, I’m very much in favor of cycling as an alternative or supplement to the automobile, but I also have generally found cyclists (perhaps because they’re busy dodging cars driving by oblivious drivers) to themselves be rude and arrogant in roughly the same proportion that cyclists with whom I’m acquainted complain about automobile drivers.

  6. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 03/11/2014 - 06:26 pm.

    Transportation Relation

    I have to say I’m not impressed with the people who claim that bicyclists are arrogant and don’t follow the rules. Like a previous poster, I drive, walk, bike, and take the bus, all in turn. And no matter which mode of transportation I take, I see someone doing something stupid. Saturday I was driving home with a new commuter bike I had just bought when some idiot decides he wants to cross the street. Never mind that the light had turned green for my direction and he had a clear DON’T WALK sign. Judging from his staggering and his unsuccessful attempt to grab his crotch, I would guess alcohol was involved in that decision.

    Monday while I was waiting for the bus I watched a car roll right through a full-on red light with nary a care in the world. The driver didn’t have any hands on the wheel while he attended to a task in his lap.

    And I see bikers running red lights and stop signs on a regular basis. But then I see cars also doing the same, to the point where it’s rare to see a car some to a full stop at a sign or on a right turn unless there’s cross traffic.

    And there have been plenty of dumb bikers who are impatient and try to pass on the trail without first checking to see if it’s clear.

    I’ve also come across pedestrians standing in the middle of the bike trail having a conversation (one lady with a baby in her arms) while there are bikes bearing down on them from both directions and people yelling “bike coming!” Oh, and there was a pedestrian path just a few feet away.

    So yes, there are clueless people in every walk of life and those people sometimes drive, sometimes walk, and sometimes ride a bike. Be alert, put the headphones, iPod, and iPhone away, and pay attention to the world around you. Be part of your environment instead of treating it as an annoying distraction that must be tuned out.

  7. Submitted by Mark Iezek on 03/11/2014 - 09:32 pm.

    separate paths for bikes

    In reading the linked article, I was struck by the emphasis on separating bike traffic as much as possible from motor vehicles. Bicycles sharing the road on streets with heavy auto traffic was described as elitist, since many people (children, elderly, parents transporting children) cannot do it as confidently as fit, speedy cyclists. If cycling is to become more universal and utilitarian, the needs of the less able cyclists must be met by continuing to create separate infrastructure.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 03/12/2014 - 12:28 pm.

      Bike Lanes

      Mark, I agree with your assessment wholeheartedly. As a middle aged guy I don’t have a problem getting into traffic and mixing it up with cars, but I don’t represent the general public. Most people don’t like riding next to one tone vehicles, especially the young, women, and elderly. In order to attract them to the cycling mix we need to develop infrastructure that makes them feel safe.

      A couple of years ago I was tooling around Belgium and Holland on vacation and got to see a lot of bikers in action. In those countries there isn’t a bike culture per se because it’s something everyone does. I spotted children with parents and elderly couples alike on their bikes popping around to run errands. No one thought twice about it because it’s simply what they do every single day. Most people didn’t get dressed up in bike gear, helmets, or special shoes to go to the store or the local attraction.

      Of course there will be people who grumble about every little dime spent on biking. They’ve bought into the car-centric culture and think the only way to make our transportation system better is to spend yet more money on roads. Fortunately we have some people in government who realize that society moves on a mix of methods, not just one transportation mode.

      The only thing I would change about your post is to shift the title from “paths for bikes” to “lanes for bikes.” Paths are nice in their place, but they’re not going to take a biker everywhere she needs to go. Having lanes on the street that are separated from cars by a physical barrier will go a long way towards making both bikers and drivers comfortable with the new status quo.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/12/2014 - 09:18 am.

    It’s nice to see the lunacy of Bike Driving finally revealed

    Vehicular bike riding has always been a daft idea. It’s about time American bikers get their heads around the fact that you don’t collide with the drivers that see you so riding in traffic just puts you one distracted driver away from having a real bad day.

    As far as obeying the traffic laws is concerned, this complaint is valid so long as it’s not pedantic. Some auto drivers don’t realize to the extent to which our roads are tailored to cars and cars only. There’s a difference between running a red light in traffic, which is dangerous for anyone, and riding down residential streets with through stops for instance. Bike riders have superior visibility and unless a rider blasts music from their ear buds they can also hear what’s going on. As long as a rider approaches every intersection with caution there’s not to actually stop at every stop sign when there’s no traffic. On the other hand, if you meet a car at a controlled intersection you should follow the traffic law.. but I must say, in over 40s years of riding I’ve never met a car driver that didn’t wave me through under such circumstances.

    As a general rule our stop light controlled intersections are simply not designed for bikes. Left turns are always dicey and there’s no universal rule that makes every intersection safe for a bicycle. Sometimes breaking the rules is the safest way to get through an intersection in a given circumstance because the rules weren’t designed with bicycles in mind.

    Also, note the absence of “helmet” discussion here.

    Finally, I think the bikes themselves play a larger role than is generally recognized. One observation that isn’t discussed here is the fact that Europeans for the most part aren’t riding road bikes (with the drop down handle bars). Road bikes were designed for racing and their very design in many ways encourages riders to put their head down and cruise. Furthermore, the position of the break levers is problematic because most rider don’t position their hands properly and cannot reach the breaks as quickly as they might need to. It’s a problem when riders pretend their in a race of some kind. No one does a bicycle race in the midst of normal traffic on either roads or bike paths so it’s always dangerous to ride like your in a race under those circumstances.

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