When cities build protected bike lanes, it doesn’t just save the lives of current bicyclists, said a leading global health expert, it saves lives by getting sedentary people out of their cars.
“Because of our over-dependence on the private motorized vehicle, we are leading sedentary lifestyles,” said Jonathan Patz, director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “According to several reports from the World Health Organization, because of that increase in sedentary lifestyles there are almost four million premature deaths every year.”
In the United States, just under 1 percent of commuters travel by bicycle, Patz said. Increasing that slice to 6 percent—the level in Madison, WI—would avoid 20,000 premature deaths per year, he said. Increasing it to the level in Davis, CA—20 percent—would avoid 45,000 deaths. And if U.S. commuters bicycled as often as their counterparts in Amsterdam, where 40 percent of commuters choose bikes, it would save 60,000 American lives every year.
“This shows a major physical-fitness benefit from active travel,” he said, “but we need to design cities safely. We cannot just say ‘Go out and ride a bike,’ when the urban design is not there. We need to absolutely demand cities design and redesign for people, not just for motorized vehicles. So this is a clear message we need to carry that forward.”
Many of those deaths are caused by diabetes and obesity-related disorders.
“It’s a no-brainer that exercise is great, but we have designed exercise out of many of our cities,” Patz said.
“In the U.S., 44 cyclists are killed per billion kilometers traveled by bike nationwide,” according to Newsweek. “In Denmark, however, there are only 14.6 deaths per billion kilometers traveled—and this in a country that does not require helmets (only 27 percent of riders wear them). Much of that improved safety has to do with better infrastructure—bike lanes are raised and separated from automobile traffic, for example.”
Patz advocated bicycle commuting in a talk this month hosted by the University of Chicago’s Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation. It was one of many actions that he said would both mitigate climate change and avert half of the premature deaths caused annually by pollution.