Cycle beats car

Health benefits of cycling outweigh risks of pollution, accident

By Salonie Chawla
Published: Monday 15 November 2010

imageCYCLING is a good aerobic fitness exercise. But should one cycle on congested city roads? Yes, suggests a team of Dutch scientists. Even though there are risks of traffic accident and exposure to vehicle exhaust, health benefits of cycling are greater than the hazards associated with it, they say.

The team led by Jeroen Johan de Hartog of Institute for Risk Assessment Sciences, University of Utrecht, analysed data from international studies on the benefits of exercise and threats from vehicle exhaust and traffic accidents. They then compared the health impact of cycling over car driving, assuming that 500,000 adults switched from cars to cycles in the Netherlands every day. The assessment was done for short trips because half of all car trips in the country are less than 7.5 km.

The researchers found cycling even for a short period of time in traffic can lead to significant exposure to vehicle exhaust because cyclists tend to breathe about twice as deeply as car drivers. This contributes to respiratory and heart problems. They also calculated the risk of dying in a traffic accident. In the Netherlands, which has dedicated cycle lanes, the risk is four times greater per kilometre travelled for cyclists than for car drivers.

Despite the risks, Hartog and his team determined, by switching from driving to cycling people would on an average live three to 14 months longer because of increased physical fitness. The risks they would face would be potentially losing 0.8 to 40 days of life because of increased exposure to air pollution and five to nine days due to fatal traffic accident. The elderly benefited the most by this switch. The ratio of life years gained to life years lost was 84:10 for people less than 40 years, 86:10 for those between 40 and 64, and 108:10 for those over 65.

Switching to cycling would also benefit public health because eliminating 500,000 car trips a day would significantly reduce pollution, the team noted in the August issue of Environmental Health Perspectives. Policies promoting cycling have so far been focused on congestion and pollution. Such policies can now elaborate net beneficial effects on public health, especially if accompanied by suitable transport planning and safety measures, they said.

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