The fear of injury while cycling through traffic deters many people from biking to work. In the UK, only 4% of people cycle to work even though around 40% have access to a bike, with 64% of respondents in the British Social Attitudes (PDF) survey agreeing that cycling to work is too dangerous.
Is that fear justified? Researchers at the University of Glasgow decided to find out. They examined hospital records and other data from 230,390 commuters from 22 places in the UK, 5,704 of whom said they used cycling as their main form of transportation. The results of their study were published on Wednesday in the BMJ medical journal.
They found that commuting by bike was associated with a 45% higher risk of admission to a hospital for an injury compared with other methods of commuting, and longer cycling distances were linked to a higher risk of injury. However, they found the health benefits of cycling were considerable, being linked to a lower risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and premature death.
Participants were recruited between 2006 and 2010 as part of the wider UK Biobank data set and tracked for an average of 8.9 years. Of the people who only cycled to work, 7% were injured, while among people who cycled for part of the commute, 6% were injured. In contrast, 4.3% of the commuters who traveled by car or public transport were injured. Walking to work wasn’t associated with a greater risk of injury.
In an editorial linked to the study, Anne Lusk, a research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said that the study revealed an “urgent need to improve safety for cyclists.”
“Enhanced cycle tracks in dedicated space beside sidewalks should be as revered and generously funded as historic buildings and trails,” she wrote.
However, despite the higher risk of injury, the study showed that cycling to work was linked to tangible health benefits.
When cyclists were compared with all other commuters, they showed a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease like heart attacks and stroke, lower risk of first cancer diagnosis and lower risk of death overall.
“What we’re saying is that if 1,000 people who don’t currently cycle to work change their minds, on average over the next 10 years, we would see a total of 26 injuries that we would not have otherwise — three of which would result in hospitalization of more than a week,” said Paul Welsh, a senior lecturer at Institute of Cardiovascular & Medical Sciences at Glasgow University.
But, he added, “The benefit is 15 fewer cancers, four fewer heart attacks or stroke and three fewer deaths.”
Welsh said that governments need to do more than paint cycle lanes on roads if they want to get people on their bikes. Segregated cycle lanes like those in Amsterdam and Copenhagen are what’s needed to make people feel safe, he said.
“It involves getting away from the mindset that cars have priority. Does this road need to be two-way? Can it be one-way with larger pavements and segregated cycle lanes?”
Right now, he said the attitude among some cyclists was that you have to get mentally “geared up for war on the road,” but in places with segregated lanes, cycling was much more diverse and accessible.
“It’s not just middle aged men wearing Lycra.”
The study was observational and can only establish a link between cycling and injury, but the study tried to take into account factors such as age, sex and physical activity levels. Welsh said.
Cycling was associated with a higher risk of injury to arms and legs, the torso, the head or neck, and fracture injuries, as well as injury-related hospital stays, the study found.