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Cycling for Health

by Lisa Saffron(more info)

listed in exercise and fitness, originally published in issue 27 - April 1998

Of all the ways the environment affects health, the one that matters most to me is transport. Not only is our health at risk from air pollution, traffic accidents and noise but the physical inactivity created by dependence on motor vehicles substantially increases our collective risk of heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, diabetes and cancer. Only exceptionally determined people can make cycling and walking their dominant forms of transport. For the rest of us, and that is the majority of people in this country, we need a transport system at national, regional and local level that reduces dependence on the car and makes cycling and walking the easier and more attractive options.

To achieve the health benefits of physical activity, we should do half an hour of moderately intense activity every day. Those of us who have sedentary jobs and travel by bus or car have to make a special effort to fit in that half an hour. It is possible to incorporate sports, swimming and a workout at the gym into your daily routine but many people don't. In one survey of women's reasons for not taking more exercise, 43% said they did not see themselves as the sporty type, 25% were stopped by injury, disability or poor health, 13% felt too fat, 11% were too shy or embarrassed and 6% said they were too old.

Bicycling and walking achieve two goals at the same time. They are forms of physical activity and of transport. Most car journeys are less than 5 miles long and could easily be made by bicycle. In the Netherlands, people more readily travel by bicycle. We can't blame the British weather as there is just as much rain in the Netherlands. One difference is that parts of Britain are hilly, although careful route planning and a 12 speed bicycle help to overcome that obstacle. One thing that puts many people off bicycling is the inconvenience of wearing and carrying a helmet. Interestingly, no one wears helmets in Europe. In Australia, there was an 80% drop in bicycling when a law was passed making the use of cycle helmets mandatory. However, the main reason for the lack of cycling in this country by both adults and children is directly related to car use. Roads belong to cars and bicyclists feel neither safe nor welcome on the roads. The risk of death may be low (1 fatality per 19 million km cycled) but coupled with the risk of injury, it's enough to deter all but the seriously committed. In the Netherlands and in Denmark, where cars are not allowed to dominate, cycling is 12 times safer. A network of cycle paths separates cars from bicycles and in many towns, car speed limits are set as low as 5 mph. Some of the barriers to taking more exercise given in the survey above could also stop people from taking up bicycling. Cycle promotion campaigns have to address the cultural and psychological barriers to cycling and the specific reasons stopping women, children and older people from cycling. But there's no doubt that more people would cycle if the roads were made more cycle friendly. This has to be done at national, regional and local level.

At national level, a consultation document on integrated transport came out last August. Some 6,500 written responses flooded in, prompting the Transport Minister Gavin Strang to pronounce in December, "The time has come for radical change to improve not just how we get about but also our health and environment. We must persuade people to use their cars less and public transport more. To walk or cycle rather than getting behind the wheel". This spring, the white paper will be published but so far, Strang's strong words are not backed up by concrete measures to promote walking and cycling as part of an integrated transport policy.

There is a National Cycling Strategy launched in July 1996. The strategy was developed by representatives from government, voluntary organisations and commercial bodies. In their first year, they made plans to tackle road safety, to link cycling with other forms of transport and to monitor the success of the strategy. They summarised research studies on cycling and health and on the effectiveness of policies to promote cycling.

There are many local initiatives to promote cycling. I investigated a typical one in Bristol – Project Bike. The aims of Project Bike are to encourage people to cycle to work in north Bristol and south Gloucestershire. This is an area with many small businesses and large companies such as Rolls Royce, Hewlett Packard and British Aerospace. In the 1950s, 75% of the Rolls Royce workforce cycled to work. Now only 20% do, about twice as many as at Hewlett Packard and British Aerospace. Started in 1996, Project Bike has been active with a range of practical ways to promote bicycling. These include:

  • giving grants to employers for bicycle facilities;
  • ycle parking, showers, changing rooms;
  • operating the Cycle Friendly Employers Award;
  • providing personalised information for commuters on the best cycle routes to work;
  • selling cycle city guides highlighting cycle paths, quiet back streets and cycle parking throughout Bristol.

(Project Bike, BEET, The Create Centre, B-Bond Warehouse, Smeaton Road, Bristol BS1 6XN, Tel: 0117-930 0032)

Practical action at the national, local and individual level is needed to make cycling a viable alternative to cars. Whether the local and individual efforts to promote cycling will be supported with a truly integrated national transport policy, remains to be seen.

Other cycle promoting groups:

Cyclists Touring Club, www.ctc.org.uk Tel: 0870 873 0060.
Don't Choke Britain, PO Box 893, London E5 9RU.
Sustrans, 35 King Street, Bristol BS1 4DZ, Tel: 0117 926 8893,
Transport 2000, 10 Melton Street, London NW1 2ES, Tel: 020 7388 8386.

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About Lisa Saffron

Lisa Saffron is a health researcher and writer with a particular interest in the effect of environmental pollution on health. She has a Masters in Environmental Technology and a first degree in microbiology. She is committed to providing accurate and accessible information. Lisa also wrote a regular column in Positive Health magazine.

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