Public bicycle sharing is gaining popularity in cities around the world as people are trading cars for low-cost rental bikes used for short hops around town. While it’s hoped this will have a positive effect on the environment, a study finds that it may benefit people’s health as well.
A study released Thursday in the British Medical Journal focused on a bike sharing program in Barcelona, Spain, which has been in place since 2007. In August 2009, about 182,000 people had subscribed to the service, representing approximately 11% of the city’s population (although it was noted that only 1.7% of the population uses it on a regular basis). The average distance traveled on a weekday was about two miles, which took about 14 minutes.
Researchers wanted to know how substituting bicycles for cars would affect overall health. They analyzed deaths linked with bike travel and compared it with driving deaths associated with traffic accidents and air pollution exposure, then factored in the benefits of physical activity. Carbon dioxide reduction was also examined.
For cyclists, estimated deaths from exposure to air pollution and from traffic accidents went up. Factoring how much particulate matter would be sucked up, the study authors determined that there could be an annual increase of 0.13 deaths from air pollution yearly among cyclists compared with drivers. Looking at data on traffic deaths, there could be 0.3 more deaths among cyclists annually versus drivers.
But when researchers factored in the health benefits derived from physical activity, they estimated that 12.28 deaths could be avoided every year.
Based on how many people take advantage of the bicycles, they estimated that carbon dioxide emissions may be reduced by 10,000 tons a year.
“This initial assessment is ... important now to encourage cities to follow the lead of Barcelona and other major cities as a cost saving solution for alternative transportation and promotion of health,” the authors wrote.