Cycling infrastructure saves lives in more ways than one

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When cities build protected bike lanes, it not only saves the lives of current cyclists, said a leading global health expert, it also saves lives by getting sedentary people out of their cars.

“Because of our over-reliance on personal motor vehicles, we lead sedentary lifestyles,” said Jonathan Patz, director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “There are nearly four million premature deaths each year due to this increase in sedentary lifestyles, according to multiple reports from the World Health Organization.”

In the US, just under 1 percent of commuters ride bikes, Patz said. Increasing that proportion to 6 percent — the level in Madison, WI — would avoid 20,000 premature deaths a year, he said. An increase to Davis, CA levels — 20 percent — would avoid 45,000 deaths. And if US commuters rode bikes as often as their counterparts in Amsterdam, where 40 percent of commuters choose to ride bikes, it would save 60,000 American lives every year.

“This shows a great physical fitness benefit from active travel,” he said, “but we need to make cities safe. We can’t just say “go out and ride a bike” if urban design isn’t there. It is imperative that we demand that cities be designed and redesigned for people, not just motorized vehicles. So that is a clear message that we need to carry.”

Many of these deaths are caused by diabetes and obesity-related diseases.

“It goes without saying that exercise is great, but we’ve developed exercises in many of our cities,” Patz said.

“In the United States, 44 cyclists are killed for every billion kilometers cycled nationally,” according to Newsweek. “But in Denmark there are only 14.6 deaths per billion kilometers driven – and that’s in a country that doesn’t have a helmet requirement (only 27 percent of drivers wear a helmet). Much of this improved safety has to do with better infrastructure – for example bike lanes are being increased and separated from car traffic.”

Patz advocated commuting by bike in a talk hosted this month by the University of Chicago’s Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation. It was one of many measures he said would both mitigate climate change and prevent half of the premature deaths caused by pollution each year.

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