Risks versus benefits of commuting by bike assessed

More must be done to protect cycling commuters, researchers have said, after a new study examined the risks and benefits of travelling to work by bike.

Cycling commuters have a lower risk of heart disease, cancer and premature death.

But their risk of injury was found to be significantly higher than those who commute by car or bus.

Researchers examined data on 230,390 commuters taking part in the UK Biobank study.

Cycle lanes
Cycle lanes

The team from the University of Glasgow found that 2.5% (5,704 people) cycled to work.

After an average follow-up period of almost nine years they found that 4.4% of all the study participants had at least one hospital admission for an injury or had died as a result of injury.

Injuries were experienced by 7% of those who cycled compared to 4.3% of people who used a “non-active” mode of transport.

Commuters who cycled to work were estimated to have a 45% increased risk of injury compared with “non-active” commuters.

The risk was also found to be higher with a longer commute.

But commuters who cycled to work had a lower risk of heart disease, cancer, and death compared to non-active commuters.

Those who rode a bike to work were found to have a 21% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, were 11% less likely to have had a first cancer diagnosis and were estimated to have a 12% reduced risk of premature death, compared to those who opted for a car or bus.

A cycle lane
A cycle lane

“Compared with non-active commuting to work, commuting by cycling was associated with a higher risk of hospital admission for a first injury and higher risk of transport related incidents specifically,” the authors wrote.

“These risks should be viewed in context of the health benefits of active commuting and underscore the need for a safer infrastructure for cycling in the UK.”

Senior author of the study Dr Paul Welsh, from the University of Glasgow, said: “We know there is a perception that cycling in commuter traffic is dangerous, and that this perception may be putting people off actively commuting by bike to work.

“Now, as a result of this research, we can to some extent quantify the risk associated with this form of commuting.

“If 1,000 people incorporate cycling into their commute for 10 years we would expect 26 more injuries, but 15 fewer cancers, four fewer heart disease events, and three fewer deaths.

“So, the benefits offset the risks, and this should be encouraging, but more needs to done to make commuter cycling safe.”

He added: “Although we did not investigate strategies to make cycling safer, initiatives such as segregated cycle lanes, speed reductions and traffic calming have been shown, in previous work, to provide improved safety.

“Our work along with other research in this area suggests that there is a need for both local and central government in the UK to consider a wide range of options for improving cycling-specific, as well as general, road safety. Without improvements, many people simply won’t consider cycling as a viable commute option.”

In a linked editorial, Anne Lusk, research scientist from the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, said that the study showed “an urgent need to improve safety for cyclists”.

“Modern cities need safe bicycle facilities to mitigate climate change by reducing carbon emissions,” she wrote.

Commenting on the study, Nick Chamberlin, policy manager at British Cycling, said: “Whether it’s physical health, mental health or the quality of our air, we know that getting more people out of their cars and cycling to work can play a crucial role in tackling some of the biggest crises our country faces.

“Despite this, too many people still don’t deem our roads safe enough for them to make the switch, and we can only hope to change this through significant and sustained investment in safe cycling infrastructure.”