Bicycle commuting improves public health, reduces medical costs

According to Image of worker commuting on bikePhoto: Shutterstock the results of a new study, bicycle commuting in the Twin Cities metropolitan area reduces chronic illness and preventable deaths, saving millions of dollars annually in medical costs.

The findings are one component of a multifaceted project funded by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). In the final report, researchers in several U of M departments provide a comprehensive understanding of the economic impact and health effects of bicycling in Minnesota.

“MnDOT has long identified bicycling as an important part of the state’s multimodal transportation system,” says Tim Henkel, modal planning and program management assistant commissioner. “This first-ever study generated new information that will inform policy and program strategies on bicycling as we determine levels of future investment.”

Xinyi Qian, an Assistant Extension Professor in the U’s Tourism Center, was the project’s principal investigator.  Dr. Mark Pereira of the School of Public Health, one of the co-investigators, led the health component of the project.

Pereira’s team began by measuring the amount of bicycle commuting among Twin Cities adults using data from the 2014 Minnesota State Survey. (The counties included were Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, Scott, and Washington.) The team found that 13.4 percent of working-age metro-area residents (244,000 adults) bicycle to work at least occasionally, and the average bicycle commuter rides 366 miles per year.

The researchers next estimated the number of deaths prevented from that amount of bicycling using the Health Economic Assessment Tool developed by the World Health Organization (WHO). Their analysis found that bicycle commuting in the metro area prevents 12 to 61 deaths per year, saving $100 million to $500 million annually. “At current levels, roughly 1 death per year is prevented for every 10,000 cyclists,” he says.

The WHO tool estimates savings from prevented deaths but not from prevented disease. To estimate the effect of bicycling commuting on illness, researchers conducted an online survey of Twin Cities cyclists; participants also included three commuter groups and a bicycle parts manufacturer.

“We learned that bicycling is linked to lower risk of metabolic syndrome, obesity, and hypertension,” Pereira says. “For example, taking three additional bicycle trips per week is associated with 46 percent lower odds of metabolic syndrome, 32 percent lower odds of obesity, and 28 percent lower odds of hypertension.”

The illness assessment provides relative risk estimates that planners can use in cost-benefit analyses. “Current methods only consider risk reductions related to death rates, so the benefit of infrastructure projects is underestimated,” Pereira says. “By providing an estimate of the risk reductions for diabetes and heart disease related to cycling, we provide an input that will help project planners more accurately represent the benefits of these projects.”

While the research was conducted in the Twin Cities, the methods can be used in other locations and to compare changes over time. “The findings also provide a foundation for transportation and health care officials to take action,” Pereira says, citing several options:

  • Promote active transportation through policies and intervention programs, e.g., employer incentives.
  • Develop consistent safety education and encouragement messages statewide to increase bicycle commuting.
  • Continue to encourage and implement safe bicycling to school and access to bicycles for youth across the state.

Upcoming articles will report on the economic impact components of the study.


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