Health! Cycling as precious preventive measure

The positive effects of active mobility on society can also be measured financially: More and more studies confirm the positive health aspects of active mobility – even in cities. But especially when cycling it is important that the conditions are right. Why cycling as a means of transport is a real motor for health is the topic of an article we compiled for a special health edition of the “zoll+” magazine.

Positive effects are predominant

“You’re style of living is much more unhealthy than mine!”, said the smoker to the city-biker only half jokingly. But still this comment mirrors the widely spread misunderstanding that active mobility in city areas cannot be healthy given the lack in air quality.
But comprehensive academic research (Tainio et al 2016) has shown that even in cities with twice as much fine dust pollution than Vienna the positive health effects of cycling are still predominant. Depending on the air quality this effect is only inverted after several hours of cycling in the city.
Further, the authors of the study are concluding that the alternative of taking the car has a much greater damaging effect on health. This is because of the emitted environmental poisons around and also inside the car and also because of the lack of exercise for the passengers and drivers. These civilization deceases have to be avoided. Therefore, staying at home is also not an option.

More cycle traffic makes cities healthier

A new European study (N. Mueller et al 2018) –which the Vienna University of Natural Resources (Boku) supported – puts it much more pointedly: “If all 167 European cities achieved a cycling mode share of 24.7% over 10,000 premature deaths could be avoided annually.” With a cycling share of 7%, Vienna is still far from that goal. The good news is this means the Austrian capital still has a lot of potential to reduce deaths relate to car-centric mobility in cities. For this so-called PASTA study, subsidized by the EU project for active mobility of the same name, the air quality as well as the effects of physical activity to people’s health and the effects on the numbers of traffic deaths were quantified.

These findings are aligned with that of the WHO which calculated a similar number of preventable deaths at a cycling share of 26%. “Our study adds to the growing evidence that cycling for transport does provide substantial health benefits and should be facilitated for health promotion in the urban context,” noted the PASTA authors.

The study stresses the link between expanding cycling infrastructure and the increase of cycling traffic shares in European cities. Better developed traffic infrastructure increases the incentive to switch to the bicycle. Subsequently the positive effect of cycling on health but also on the costs for the community increases.

The value of health

Studies with children particularly prove the importance of physical activity not only for individual health put also for preventing diseases like obesity and cardio-vascular problems. In the Netherlands and in Norway young adults who regularly cycled to school showed a much lower tendency towards obesity (Bere et al 2011).
Overall the life expectancy of Dutch people has increased by half a year because of active mobility on the bike. And this positive effect was also quantified: “These health benefits correspond to more than 3% of the Dutch gross domestic
Product.” (Fishman 2015) But even for the cycle-friendly Netherlands the authors of this study show potential for improvement by further expanding cycling infrastructure.

Positive effects of cycle traffic measures summarized by the European Cyclists Federation

Economic costs of health damages caused by motorized vehicles

Practically all researchers in the field of urban transport agree that the damages to health and the society caused by cars can be calculated. The EU estimates that the phenomenon “traffic” produces around €500bn in external costs per year (VCÖ 2017). These economic costs for health and environmental damages are mainly caused by motorized individual traffic by emissions, noise and accidents. These estimates do not include factors like loss of time caused by traffic jams. Over 70% of the “external costs” can be linked back to people transport. Cargo transport only makes up a small part. Other incidental costs of “car-centric” urban mobility (Mueller et al. 2018) are the “loss of natural outdoor environments”, lack of space, costs of traffic jams and infrastructure costs.
On the other hand, the benefit to society stemming from people switching to bikes is also more and more often calculated: Every cycled kilometer saves the health system €0.30, as calculated by the HEAT tool provided by the WHO. This matrix, the Health Economic Assessment Tool, can help identify the economic effects of the health situation in a society.
Even without the additional costs of current traffic mentioned above the tool shows an economic benefit for Vienna of €22 for every euro invested. For Zurich and Rome the cost-benefit ratio is much higher. (Mueller et al 2018) (Fig. 1)

Separated paths and motivation

Well-planned cycling infrastructure and a high cycling share can not only help to avoid apparent conflicts on the roads but they have much more far-reaching effects on traffic. Just looking at the cold statistic figures provided by the EU it becomes clear that in the Netherlands, with a very high cycling share, the number of deadly cycling traffic accidents are much lower than for example in Romania or Poland. In those countries fewer people use bicycles and if they do they mostly use the roads. Of course the awareness of car drivers towards cyclists is completely different in the Netherlands. And their sheer number further increases the safety aspect. Scientists call this the “safety-in-numbers” effect.

Many studies and research papers include arguments for separated, well-planned cycle infrastructure. Among other things it is suggested (Ramos et al. 2015) to divert cyclists to less used roads as physical strain means more pollutants are being inhaled. But overall the study sees a higher strain on the health of people using public transport or car drivers – mainly because of the lack in exercise. But even the creation of structurally separated cycle lanes next to busy roads has positive effects (Schepers et al 2015), particularly because it increases the share of cycle traffic.

A study tailored to Austria by the AIT (Austrian Institute of Technology) on the motivation for switching to active mobility (Markvica et al 2016) shows a basically widespread willingness among citizens to stop using the car and rather walk or cycle to work (fig. 2). CycleCompetence member AIT also looked into the reasons why this willingness does not translate into an actual switch: A study on mobility (AIT 2016) for one district in Vienna shows that it is mainly the lack of cycle parking and cycle lanes keeping people from using this means of transport on a more regular basis.

But sometimes a first nudge is all it needs for people to acquire a taste: The cycling to work initiative “Radelt zur Arbeit” by the Radlobby Österreich “collected” five million cycle kilometers last year alone avoiding almost 800 tons of CO2. Of course this also includes people who would have cycled to work anyway but the increasing total distance cycled also proves a trend towards rethinking. According to the HEAT tool the health benefit of the total distance “collected” would amount to €1.5m for the Austrian economy.
The actual level of the health benefit was tested in the GISMO project headed by CycleCompetence member Z-GIS (Interfaculty Department of Geoinformatics at the University of Salzburg). The researcher used empiric methods as well as a clinical study. The results are both published in “Zoll+” as well as on our website (LINK).

So, cycling is healthy, also in the city – or maybe even especially there as it not only increases individual health through active mobility. It also improves the air quality and the quality of living for everyone. The platform “CycleCompetence Austria” promotes good frameworks and infrastructure for cyclists to increase these health effects.


  • AIT: Smarter Together = Mobility Survey 2016
  • E. Bere et al: The association between cycling to school and being overweight in Rotterdam (The Netherlands) and Kristiansand (Norway), in: Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports (2011), 21: 48–53
  • Elias Fishman, PhD, et al: Dutch Cycling: Quantifying the Health and Related Economic Benefits, in: American Journal Public Health (2015); 105:e13–e15
  • Karin Markvica et al: Using Milieu-Based Communication Strategies for Changing Mobility Behaviour Towards Low Energy Modes = Conference Report from BEHAVE 2016, 4th European Conference on Behaviour and Energy Efficiency
  • David Martínez-Gómez, MSc, et al: Active Commuting to School and Cognitive Performance in Adolescents, in: Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 2011;165(4):300-305. Published online December 6, 2010
  • Natalie Mueller et al: Health impact assessment of cycling network expansions in European cities, in: Preventive Medicine (to be published 2018)
  • Carla A. Ramos et al: Air pollutant exposure and inhaled dose during urban commuting: a comparison between cycling and motorized modes, in: Air Quality, Atmosphere, and Health (2016)
  • Paul Schepers et al: The mortality impact of bicycle paths and lanes related to physical activity, air pollution exposure and road safety, in: Journal of Transport & Health 2 (2015) 460–473
  • Marko Tainio et al: Can air pollution negate the health benefits of cycling and walking?, in: Preventive Medicine 87 (2016) 233–236
  • VCÖ, Ausgeblendete Kosten des Verkehrs = Mobilität mit Zukunft 03/2017

Pictures: Peter Provaznik/Die Radvokaten

Posted on July 6, 2018