I took advantage of last week’s decent weather to get back on the bike for my commute, after a couple of weeks on the train. I’d had an unlucky run of punctures, then a spill on a slippery corner, and was feeling a bit bike-unfriendly. But armed with puncture-resistant tires and a shiny new bike jacket, I was ready to give it another go.
What had I missed? So many things. The sense of freedom, firstly; that intoxicating moment when you pedal off, completely self-reliant, with no worries about late, cancelled or overcrowded trains. Physical space, with the cool air whooshing past. Stretching my muscles, feeling the joints and tendons and blood vessels all starting to do what they’re meant to do.
The pleasures of sight and smell – they’d cut the grass as I cycled past Dulwich College, and there are trees coming into blossom between Dulwich and Herne Hill. Then there was the milky light on the Thames as I cycled along the embankment, the benign bongs from Big Ben striking eight, the breathtaking view – from Parliament in the west to St Paul’s in the east – as I crossed Waterloo Bridge.
Above all, I’d missed that feeling of achievement as I arrived at BMA House in the morning, of being fully awake, senses sharpened, blood pumping, ready for whatever the day had in store. Shuffling off the train, after a cramped half hour attempting to ignore all the bodies crowded in around me, simply didn’t compare.
Basically, I felt a whole lot better. My mood was sunnier, my appetite was enormous, I slept soundly. But (and it’s a big but) I’m not blind to the risks. I’ve been following The Times’ Cities Fit for Cycling campaign, with a mixture of support and trepidation. No-one who cycles regularly needs to be reminded of the dangers they face.
So am I foolish to continue cycling? In an attempt to answer the question, I did a quick PubMed search for studies looking at this topic. (Note – this is a far from systematic review. If you know of studies I should consider, please let me know). The first I found looked at the impact of the Bicing public bike hire scheme in Barcelona.[Ref 1] The study found that, compared to car users, those using Bicing has a small increase in risk of death from car accident (an additional 0.03 deaths per year), but a much reduced risk of death from diseases linked to lack of exercise (12 fewer deaths per year). Overall, the study said, the benefits much outweighed the risks.
All well and good, but there were plenty of flaws in the study. Bicing users were likely to be fitter, healthier types anyway, weren’t they? Was it fair to compare their mortality rate to that of car drivers? A study in Environmental Health Perspectives [Ref 2] tackled my question straight, asking ‘Do the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks?’
The result of this Dutch literature review and meta-analysis was reassuring: ‘For individuals who shift from car to bicycle, we estimated that beneficial effects of increased physical activity are substantially larger (3-14 months gained) than the potential mortality effect of increased inhaled air pollution doses (0.8-40 days lost) and the increase in traffic accidents (5-9 days lost).’ In addition, they note, society as a whole benefits from reduced air pollution and carbon emissions.
However, this study looked at the effects of cycling in the Netherlands, where the cycling infrastructure is amazing and the whole attitude to bikes is far friendlier than the combative streets of London. 15 cyclists have been killed in the UK already this year. Last year, 16 cyclists were killed in London alone.
I couldn’t find a study looking at the risks and benefits of cycling for Londoners. What is clear is that cycling can make you feel great, yet it’s more dangerous than it needs to be on our roads today. I’ll be asking the candidates for London Mayor this May to spell out exactly how they plan to address the situation.
Ref 1: Rojas-Rueda D, de Nazelle A, Tainio M, Nieuwenhuijsen MJ. The health risks and benefits of cycling in urban environments compared with car use: health impact assessment study. BMJ 2011 Aug 4;343:d4521. doi: 10.1136/bmj.d4521.
Ref 2: Johan de Hartog J, Boogaard H, Nijland H, Hoek G. Do the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks? Environ Health Perspect. 2010 Aug;118(8):1109-16. Epub 2010 Jun 11.
Image: my own