Get on your bike

OECD Observer

As the Tour de France celebrates its 100th anniversary, it seems an opportune time to praise the healthy virtues of cycling. In many countries, cycling is firmly established as a standard way of getting around. In Nordic countries, as well as in some British and German towns, cycle lanes are increasingly commonplace, sometimes as part of an integrated park-and-ride scheme with rail or bus. And, of course, bicycles have long been supreme in the Netherlands.

But in general, promoting cycling as a practical form of physical activity has been largely ignored, even in these countries. A 2002 World Health Organization (WHO) report points out there is good evidence that regular physical activity has a protective effect against several chronic conditions, including coronary heart disease, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, colon cancer, depression and anxiety, and it highlights cycling as one form of physical activity that meets the metabolic criteria for achieving health benefits. And reports on China have noticed a relationship, but in the opposite direction: that obesity and related disorders have risen as urban populations abandoned cycling (and walking) in favour of motorised transport.

As work being carried out by experts at the European Conference of Ministers of Transport (ECMT) points out, while as many as half of all trips in some cities are made by bicycle, such mobility is almost non-existent in others. Yet, in EU countries, 30% of motorised trips are shorter than 2 km and 50% are shorter than 5 km. Cycling even these distances can be beneficial: according to the WHO, two normal 15-minute cycling trips a day (say, to and from work) would be enough to provide marked health benefits.

Apart from these health advantages, there are others, including cleanliness and cost-effectiveness. Moreover, bike-friendly policies are not that hard to introduce, once the political willpower is there. Most pro-cycling initiatives have tended to be driven by planning objectives, like improving safety, traffic control and landscaping, but health issues are quickly rising up the policy agenda. Now, new (and, some say, controversial) cycle lanes are being laid in the heart of major cities like London and Paris.

There are policy challenges. Cycle lanes are not cost-free and require detailed traffic planning. Also, the more people cycle, the more cyclists get hurt. In fact, in the Netherlands about a fifth of all road deaths are cyclists, though overall, Dutch road fatalities are relatively low. Safer facilities could reduce road fatalities for all road users, including for cyclists, with some governments promoting the wearing of helmets, for instance. Indeed, helmets are now mandatory for the first time in the Tour de France.

Unfortunately, the credibility of the world’s greatest cycle race as an ambassador of good health has been dented in recent years by drug scandals; on the other hand, the exploits of defending champion Lance Armstrong and his triumphant battle against cancer seem to send a simple, more positive, message: get on your bike.

©OECD Observer No 238, July 2003

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