Impacts of Bicycling on Health, Safety, Environment

Sep 4, 2013

Impacts of Bicycling on Health, Safety, Environment

Bicycling is a form of active Transportation. Like walking, and other non-motorized modes of travel, bicycling relies on human power for locomotion. As a form of active Transportation, bicycling directly supports public health and safety objectives, including increased physical fitness, pollution reduction, and improved safety (reductions in serious and fatal crashes). In addition, bicycling helps to reduce air pollutants, limit energy and oil consumption, and also contributes to the creation of linear open space through the creation of greenways.


Bicycling and walking are excellent ways to improve cardiovascular health and help prevent chronic diseases associated with excessive body weight. A 2001 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey reported that 64% of Americans are either overweight (34%) or obese (30%), conditions associated with heart disease, certain types of cancer, type II diabetes, increased risk of stroke, arthritis, breathing problems, and psychological disorders such as depression. Nationally, this trend has increased dramatically over the past decade: in 1991, only four of 45 states had obesity rates of 15% to 19%. No states had rates in excess of 20%. In 2000, 49 states (all but Colorado) had obesity rates in excess of 15% and 22 of the 49 participating states had obesity rates of 20% or greater. Illinois' rate of adult obesity increased from 12.7% in 1991 to 20.5% in 2001. (American Obesity Association)


The National Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends at least 30 minutes of brisk activity five days per week to maintain cardiovascular fitness and control weight. Other organizations recommend at least one hour of physical activity per day. Currently, fewer than one third of adults meet the recommended amount of physical activity. In fact, 40% of American adults lead sedentary lifestyles, participating in no leisure time physical activity at all (Office of the Surgeon General, 2001). In comparison, many European countries with notably better alternative Transportation options, such as the Netherlands and Denmark, have obesity rates that are only one-third of the American rate. (Pucher and Dykstra, p. 1512)

Bicycling or walking to work, the store, or to visit friends are excellent ways to integrate exercise into one's daily activities. Nationally – as is the case in our own region – studies show that many trips made by American households are within comfortable bicycling or walking distance. Almost half (49%) of all trips are shorter than three miles, 40% are shorter than two miles, and 28% are shorter than one mile. (CATS 2004)

There are strong correlations between obesity and land use mix, and one study estimated that each additional daily hour spent in a car was associated with an increase in the likelihood of obesity of 6%. (Frank et al, 2004) The provision of alternative Transportation options such as bicycling reduces reliance on automobiles, allowing healthier modes of travel.

Are you aware of other research on the relationship between bicycling and health, or do you have anecdotal or personal observations on the subject?



In our seven-county region in 2005, we had 75,696 motor vehicle injuries, of which 629 were fatal. Our region has a motor vehicle crash each one minute and forty-six seconds. We have a fatal crash every 18 hours. Providing safe facilities and encouraging less driving can result in fewer crashes, injuries, and deaths. Such a strategy has led to lower death rates in northwestern Europe: whereas the United States had 14.9 traffic fatalities per 100,000 population in 2002, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands both had 6.1 traffic fatalities per 100,000 population by providing a safe traffic system and with a bicycle-pedestrian mode share of 30% and 48%, respectively. Less vehicle exposure can lead to fewer vehicle deaths. (CATS 2004)

Travel by bicycle can be safer than travel in an automobile. "From the 2002 National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) data, it was determined that motor vehicle traffic crashes were the leading cause of death for every age 3 through 33. Because of the young lives consumed, motor vehicle traffic crashes ranked 3rd, behind only cancer and diseases of the heart, in terms of the years of life lost, i.e., the number of remaining years that the person is expected to live had they not died." (USDOT NHTSA, 2005) This in turn points to the crucial connection between Transportation and land uses. When communities develop in ways and forms that result in nearly complete automobile dependency, the annual traffic death rates increase.

Several international examples demonstrate that bicyclist safety can be improved dramatically if addressed directly. According to one source, "…from 1975 to 2001…cyclist facilities declined by 64% in Germany and by 57% in the Netherlands. The drop in cyclist fatalities in Germany is especially impressive because it came during a boom in cycling there, with a doubling in the number of bike trips and 50% growth in the share of total trips made by bike." (Pucher and Dykstra, p. 1512)

Has improving bicycle facilities had an effect on safety in your community? Was this due to a new facility or specific improvement, an increased number of bicyclists using an existing facility, or both?



Converting motorized to non-motorized trips is also important to reduce automobile emissions. According to air quality conformity calculations, an average of 1 mile of walking or bicycling by each of the three million households in the Chicago region adds up to savings of more than 1,800 kilograms of VOC emissions. Bicycling and walking are part of a robust Transportation system that will work in a number of future energy and environmental scenarios.

Prairie Path

Bicycling and walking are important to the health of all residents of northeastern Illinois, not just to those engaging in these activities. Bicycle travel spares the air many tons of greenhouse gases and hundreds of pounds of inhalable particles each day. People bicycling or walking are typically replacing shorter automobile trips, which contribute disproportionately high amounts of pollutant emissions. As modes of travel, bicycling and walking contribute no pollution, require no external energy source, and use land efficiently. They move people effectively from place to place without adverse environmental impacts.

As noted above, bicycling and walking can also help alleviate congestion and stressed Transportation systems. Nationally, the vehicle miles traveled, rates of car ownership, and trips have continued to rise, which has increasingly strained our Transportation systems and contributed to congestion (Tresidder). By replacing automobile trips, bicycling can mitigate congestion and environmental damage. Bicycling and walking require less space and infrastructure than automobile facilities – 10 to 12 bicycles can fit into a single automobile space. As a mode of travel, bicycling corresponds to and works synergistically with compact, sustainable development patterns.

The relationship between bicycling and transit use also contributes to environmental quality. Not only can bicycle facilities increase trips on transit, they can provide alternatives to driving to park-and-ride lots. According to FHWA, for an auto trip of the length that most commuter make, "nearly 90 percent of the emissions occur in the first mile, know as the ‘coldstart' stage…converting transit access trips from auto to bike, or converting car commutes to bike-and-ride transit trips, can produce significant emissions reductions." (FHWA 1993) Other sources find similar reductions; one study estimates that if 1% of automobile travel was replaced by walking or bicycling, it would lead to a decrease in motor vehicle emissions of 2 to 4% (Litman).

What impacts on air quality do you think that bicycling would have in your community? Are there environmental impacts beyond air quality that you find significant?


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