Cycle Lane Belfast (c) Albert Bridge Creative Commons

Photo: Cycle Lane Belfast (c) Albert Bridge Creative Commons

A new study published in Preventive Medicine has found associations between cycling network length, transport mode share and related health impacts.

The new paper, co-authored by European scientists including the University of Oxford's Dr Christian Brand (Transport Studies Unit, Environmental Change Institute), has found that expanding designated cycling networks in cities could provide considerable health and economic benefits.

The analysis - part of European Commission funded Physical Activity through Sustainable Transport Approaches (PASTA) project - estimates that if all 167 of the European cities assessed achieved a 24.7% bicycle mode share, over 10,000 premature deaths could be avoided annually and, in Oxford, "7 premature deaths per year could be delayed".

A routine shift in the transport mode to cycling is positive for health due to the associated increase in physical activity and outweighs detrimental effects of air pollution and traffic incidents.

"Our paper suggests that if Oxford can improve and build a dedicated cycling network and achieve 25% bicycle share, then premature mortality would be reduced amongst those who use the network."

Dr Christian Brand, Transport Studies Unit and Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford.

"This is the first study evaluating the potential associations between cycling network length, mode share and associated health impacts across European cities", states lead author Natalie Mueller, ISGlobal.

The greatest health benefits among the different estimations made by the researchers were found in a scenario where the assessed cities had bike lanes in all their streets. In that case, London could avoid up to 1,210 premature deaths yearly, followed by Rome with 433 premature deaths yearly and Barcelona with 248 premature deaths yearly. However, already a 10% increase in designated cycling infrastructure was estimated to lead to significant increases cycling and resulted in 21 premature deaths preventable in Rome, 18 in London and 16 in Barcelona.

The researchers also performed an economic analysis to compare the costs of increasing cycling networks with the estimated economic benefits of avoided premature mortality. Results show that the best cost-benefits ratios would be met in a scenario of a 10% increase in the cycling network, in which the ratio of benefits per euro spent would be up to 70 to 1 in the case of Rome, 62 to 1 in the case of Zurich and 35 to 1 in the case of Barcelona.

According to the study, especially cities with a currently low cycling mode share (such as Rome, Barcelona and London), have great potential to increase the daily use of the bicycle just by expanding their cycling networks. "Already a 10% increase in cycling infrastructure, which we perceive as an achievable policy for city governments, most likely provides considerable health and economic benefits", reflects Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, coordinator of the Urban Planning, Environment and Health Initiative of ISGlobal and last author of the study.