Cycling to work means bet­ter health and a longer life


ABri­tish med­i­cal jour­nal pub­lished a study this spring that seemed to con­firm what ded­i­cated cy­clists had long sus­pected: Com­mut­ing on two wheels is re­ally, re­ally good for your health.

Com­pared with driv­ing or tak­ing public tran­sit, cycling to work is as­so­ci­ated with a substantially lower risk of heart dis­ease and can­cer – and even pre­ma­ture death from all causes. The health ben­e­fits of cycling are even more pow­er­ful than walk­ing, ac­cord­ing to the study.

That’s not to say that bik­ing doesn’t come with risks. With­out the pro­tec­tive steel cas­ing of a car, bik­ers are vul­ner­a­ble to be­ing hit by dis­tracted driv­ers or “doored” – knocked off their bikes when some­one ex­it­ing a parked car un­wit­tingly opens the door into their path.

But even as cycling is be­com­ing a more pop­u­lar way to get around, the num­ber of cy­clists in­jured in crashes with mo­tor ve­hi­cles de­clined 10 per­cent na­tion­wide from 2014 to 2015, ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent data avail­able from the De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion. The num­ber of deaths rose 12 per cent, but fa­tal­i­ties among bi­cy­clists re­main rel­a­tively rare. In 2015, 818 US cy­clists died in ac­ci­dents with mo­tor ve­hi­cles, ac­count­ing for 2 per cent of all traf­fic fa­tal­i­ties.

The worst cities for fa­tal­i­ties that year were Al­bu­querque, with nine deaths per mil­lion res­i­dents; Tuc­son, with 7.5 deaths; Las Ve­gas, with six; and Phoenix, with five. In the District of Columbia, there were about 1.5 bi­cy­cle fa­tal­i­ties per mil­lion res­i­dents, about the same as New York City. That makes the US cap­i­tal – where city of­fi­cials have pushed to im­prove bik­ing in­fra­struc­ture – among the safer cities to bike.

But what about the health ef­fects on bi­cy­cle com­muters rid­ing on ex­haust- filled city streets, where they in­hale more air pol­lu­tion from cars, buses and trucks than their coun­ter­parts who com­mute in ve­hi­cles and can close their win­dows?

A 2016 study pub­lished in Pre­ven­tive Medicine sug­gests that in all but the most pol­luted parts of the world, the health ben­e­fits of bik­ing far out­weigh the ad­verse af­fects of in­juries and of breath­ing in tiny par­tic­u­late mat­ter (from car ex­hausts, among other sources) that lodge deep in the lungs and in­crease the risk of res­pi­ra­tory dis­eases and even lung can­cer.

Re­searchers in 2010 found that in­juries can sub­tract five to nine days of life from the av­er­age adult cy­clist, and air pol­lu­tion can sub­tract from one to 40 days, but the ben­e­fits of cycling can add three to 14 months to a bi­cy­clist’s life.

“The ben­e­fits of active travel out­weigh the health risk of air pol­lu­tion ex­po­sure and ac­ci­dent risk by far. The ben­e­fits of phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity are just so over­whelm­ingly large,” said Hanna Boogaard, an epi­demi­ol­o­gist with the non­profit Health Ef­fects In­sti­tute, who worked on the 2010 study.

“How­ever, as a cy­clist, if you want to re­duce the air pol­lu­tion ex­po­sure and ac­ci­dent risk and you have the pos­si­bil­ity, we al­ways rec­om­mend to avoid busy roads, and tak­ing smaller roads, even if that would pro­long the trip a lit­tle bit.”

That the cost-ben­e­fit anal­y­sis would favour bik­ing makes in­tu­itive sense to Brian Flana­gan, who cy­cles about 40km each way be­tween his home in Hay­mar­ket, Vir­ginia, and his of­fice in Chan­tilly, Vir­ginia, a ride that takes about an hour and a half. He has no­ticed the ef­fects of his com­mute not only on his phys­i­cal well-be­ing but also on his men­tal and emo­tional state.

“I’m much more ex­cited and ready to start the day when I get to work, as op­posed to sit­ting in traf­fic for an hour,” Flana­gan says. “Going home, I tend to go a lit­tle slower, more re­laxed. By the time I get home, I’m in a bet­ter mood to hang out with the kids.”

But you don’t have to bike nearly 50 miles (80km) a day – or even close to that far – to re­alise the ben­e­fits of trav­el­ling un­der your own mus­cle power. You also don’t have to be wealthy. You just have to change your rou­tine (though it also helps to have ac­cess to a locker room at work).

The pro­por­tion of Amer­i­cans who bike to work quadru­pled from 2000 to 2015, from about 1 per cent to more than 4 per cent, ac­cord­ing to cen­sus data.

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