New Report Highlights the Health Benefits of Cycling to Work
A recent SCAPIS* report, carried out in Gothenburg by Sweco alongside Swedish University Hospitals, shows that positive transport infrastructure planning that promotes commuting by bike could improve people’s health considerably – and even save lives in the long term.
According to Svenskt Friluftsliv, a Swedish organisation that promotes outdoor activity, diseases relating to physical inactivity also cost the country billions each year through increased health care costs and lower levels of productivity. But with a switch in psyche when it comes to commuting, both human and financial gains could be just a short journey away.
Urban planning that is centred around cycle lanes could be a huge factor in changing behaviour and increasing what can be life-saving physical activity, and the good news is that it is possible to calculate the societal and health gains from various transportation solutions even at the planning stages of project.
Cycling to work: Key Health Benefits
Riding a bike is an effective (and fun) way to boost physical activity and wellbeing. Just 30 minutes of low-intensity cycling each day can reduce the risk of many serious illnesses. Cardiovascular diseases (CVD), high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, osteoporosis, stroke, dementia and depression are all much more preventable when cycling is undertaken regularly.
Assuming that the average distance of travel is 4.1 kilometres, as per Gothenburg’s travel pattern study, cycling saved around SEK 1 billion (c. 85 million GBP) in 2020. More importantly, 25 premature deaths could be avoided thanks to the physical activity inherent to cycling.
These results are significant, and encouragingly they are based only on a relatively small percentage of cyclists – the potential benefits both in health and financial terms are far greater.
While 45% of the city’s inhabitants live less than a 30-minute bicycle ride from work, cycling represents just 9% of total travel in Gothenburg. If all these people switched to cycling, it would mean a saving of around SEK 3.6 billion (c. 300 million GBP) annually and would result in 91 fewer premature deaths. Importantly, this is a low estimate as the figure does not take sick leave and productivity losses into consideration – it goes without saying that a fitter and happier workforce will reap its own rewards for the wider economy in any country.
The UK perspective
These results and potential wins are not unique to Gothenburg. Similar studies on potential effects have been conducted in several Swedish cities and regions. Encouragingly, our own prominent studies in the UK also support the findings and show that commuters here could benefit from the behavioural changes touted in Scandinavia.
“Initiatives to encourage and support active commuting could reduce risk of death and the burden of important chronic conditions.”
The British Medical Journal
A study by the British Medical Journal found that those that cycle to work have a 41% lower risk of dying from all causes, while Brunel University has affirmed that cyclists could be 40% less likely to develop CVDs.
“Those who cycle are 6 times healthier than any other type of commuter… and they are 40% less likely to develop cardiovascular disease.”
Brunel University, London
Other benefits include better quality of sleep (which itself can reduce the risk of ill health), weight loss, reduced pollution, time to soak up our surroundings and stay calmer by avoiding traffic jams, cost savings versus public transport, and in the current climate, reducing contact to minimise COVID transmission.
“Cars can deliver between 800-1,100 people an hour along a 4m wide road. Buses can transport 8,000 – 12,000 and active travel between 5,000-10,000.”
City Mobility Plan, 2020
The health of the environment could also be hugely improved by cycling. In Edinburgh, studies have shown that 19% of peak driving time is spent in congestion…adding 40% travel time (and extra fumes) to each journey during that time (Inrix traffic scorecard report, 2016).
The UK Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy highlighted in 2019 that transport is the single largest contributor to CO2 levels – in 2017 Transport contributed to a 1/3 of Edinburgh’s CO2 emissions. Furthermore, the CTC found that if the average commute of 4 miles each way was switched from car to bike, ½ tonne of CO2 would be saved every year.
“The cost of Edinburgh’s congestion to the local economy is estimated at £225m pa.”
TomTom Traffic Index
Extending the active travel networks in and around our UK cities (and considering them in the first place) is essential to enabling efficient travel by bike. These networks are critical to creating safe and attractive opportunities for active travel as a primary mode choice for commuter journeys.
Cycling to work has established health benefits such as greater physical and mental wellbeing but also the cyclical effects creating a modal shift from private car use to cycling. This effect not only reduces our carbon impacts but also improves the air quality around us and thus makes the cycle journey even more pleasant.
To accelerate the expansion of the bicycle infrastructure, there must be more focus on health and daily exercise in every project’s planning phase. Travel time is of course a deciding factor in choosing how we commute to and from work, but with the right wellbeing-led approach and the right transportation expertise, it is possible to offer conven1ience and healthy active travel simultaneously.
*The Swedish CArdioPulmonarybioImage Study