2: Cycling – more life years gained from fitness than lost from injury

It has been obvious for many years that the policies of many governments and related institutions, including the medical establishment, have failed to reflect the major role that cycling could play in meeting their objectives. Its scope is so considerable as to strongly indicate that it should be given pride of place in the mechanised transport hierarchy, that is, going well beyond simply treating it as a mode of transport deserving some consideration in the allocation of public resources.

A major problem however has been the fact that, whilst acknowledging that there are very good reasons for encouraging cycling, policy makers and practitioners feel that it would be inadvisable to do so. It is feared that it would inevitably lead to an increase in casualties. For this reason, whilst being unable to make a law prohibiting cycling in order to contribute to the objective of reducing road casualties overall, the prospect of any significant transfer to cycling from other forms of travel has not been welcomed.

Recent research challenges the conventional wisdom on this. An analysis has been made in which the loss of ‘life years’ in cycle fatalities was compared with the gain of ‘life years’ in greater and healthier longevity from improved fitness by regular cycling The life expectation of each cyclist killed in 1989 was established from road accident data and actuarial tables. The increased longevity attributable to those engaging in some form of exercise regime several times a week, compared with those leading relatively sedentary lives, was drawn from several longitudinal surveys in the US and UK. This was then related to the numbers in the population who currently cycle regularly as revealed in the National Travel Survey. The analysis shows that, at present, the number of life years gained through improved fitness is roughly 20 times higher than the number of life years lost in cycle fatalities even in the current traffic environment which is so hostile to cyclists.

Furthermore, there is clearly considerable scope for increasing this ratio through two interrelated means: first, the environment for cyclists can be made more user-friendly – as indeed is being attempted in some UK cities following exemplary initiatives with the construction of safe and convenient cycle networks in Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, second, that improvement is very likely to release the considerable pent-up demand for cycling that numerous surveys show to be attributable to most road users’ fears about the vulnerability of cyclists following collision with a motor vehicle.

This leaves cycling in a unique position in being able to meet the key public policy objectives of health as well as of transport, environment and energy saving. From these perspectives, the evidence now suggests that, far from it being irresponsible, owing to the risk of injury, to encourage the general population to transfer from motorised transport, especially the car, to the bicycle, wherever this is feasible, it could be judged irresponsible not to encourage that transfer owing to the risk to health of not getting regular exercise.

For the great majority of the population, cycling as part of the routine of daily travel from childhood through to old age has the potential for improving fitness in a way that, given proper provision for it in the form of safe cycle networks, cannot be matched by any other comparable exercise regime.

Originally published in Social Inventions (Journal of the Institute for Social Inventions), Vol. 25. 1992. (Strengthening the case for promoting cycling by relating health promotion to risk of injury.)

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