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European cities could avoid up to 10,000 premature deaths by expanding cycling networks

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

Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal)

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Credit: ISGlobal

A study led by researchers from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), a centre supported by the "la Caixa" Foundation, 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 - of data from 167 European cities suggests that the length of cycling infrastructures is associated with a cycling mode share of up to 24.7%, in which 1 in every 4 citizens would choose the bicycle for their daily commuting. The study, published in Preventive Medicine, estimates that if all the assessed cities achieved a 24.7% bicycle mode share, over 10,000 premature deaths could be avoided annually.

"This is the first study evaluating the potential associations between cycling network length, mode share and associated health impacts across European cities", states Natalie Mueller, ISGlobal researcher and first author of the paper. The health impact assessment conducted showed that a routine shift in the transport mode to cycling is positive for health due to the associated increase in physical activity, "whose benefits outweigh detrimental effects of air pollution and traffic incidents", adds Mueller.

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.

"Even though we did not consider other determinants of cycling and cannot infer causality here, we simply like to express that cycling networks should be high up on the agendas of city governments which have direct local accountability for providing 'healthy choices' to their citizens", reflects Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, coordinator of the Urban Planning, Environment and Health Initiative of ISGlobal and last author of the study. 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", adds Nieuwenhuijsen.

"Once again we can see that getting people out of their own cars produces great health benefits. A combination of 'push' measures that make cars unattractive and 'pull' policies aimed at making public transport and cycling more appealing would be best to improve health and wellbeing in European cities", concludes researcher Natalie Mueller.

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