If cycling in central London was as safe as in cities in the Netherlands, the health benefits from initiatives like the cycle hire scheme would be far more substantial.
Dr James Woodcock
Published in the BMJ, the large-scale modelling study found the scheme increased physical activity in London and that its health benefits outweighed potential negative impacts from injury and exposure to air pollution.
The researchers from Cambridge, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and UCL used data from every journey made on a Boris bike for the 12 months between April 2011 and March 2012.
They combined this with information from surveys of cycle hire users and data on travel, physical activity, road traffic collisions and air pollution in central London.
The results showed that men and the relatively few older cyclists (45 and older) who use the scheme achieve the most pronounced benefits, while women and younger riders do not benefit as much.
“When the cycle hire scheme was introduced, there were widespread concerns that increasing the number of inexperienced cyclists in central London would lead to higher injury rates,” says senior author Dr Anna Goodman of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“Our findings are reassuring, as we found no evidence of this. On the contrary, our findings suggest that the scheme has benefited the health of Londoners and that cycle hire users are certainly not at higher risk than other cyclists.”
The study compared the effects of the cycle hire scheme against the likely mode of transport (tube, bus, walking, etc) if the cycle hire scheme did not exist. They looked at two scenarios for injury rates - from reported accidents and injuries among cycle hire users, as well as background rates of injuries and deaths among all cyclists in central London.
The benefits of the cycle hire scheme substantially outweighed the harms when weighed against observed injury rates for hired bikes.
When injury rates for all cycling in central London were used as a comparison, the benefits were smaller and disappeared entirely for women. This is due to higher death rates among female cyclists following collisions with HGVs in London), and a trend towards lower injury rates on cycle hire bikes than for cyclists in general in the area covered by the scheme.
The study points out that reducing risks faced by cyclists, and encouraging older people to make more use of Boris bikes, would boost health benefits even further.
According to lead author Dr James Woodcock of the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR): “If cycling in central London was as safe as in cities in the Netherlands, the health benefits from initiatives like the cycle hire scheme would be far more substantial.
“The Netherlands manages to achieve high levels of cycling with low risks, not by focusing on helmets and hi-vis, but by providing high quality infrastructure that physically protects cyclists from busy, fast moving traffic.”
Launched in 2010, the London cycle hire scheme now has 10,000 bikes and 723 stations across the capital. Although there are similar cycle sharing schemes in more than 600 cities in 49 countries, there is limited evidence so far on the health impact of these schemes.
Physical inactivity has been linked previously with a wide range of health problems including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia, depression and many forms of cancer. Research suggests that most people in London would benefit from increasing their activity levels and cycling offers a good opportunity to integrate this activity into everyday life.