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Do the Health Benefits of Cycling Outweigh the Risks?

de Hartog, Jeroen J.1; Boogaard, Hanna1; Nijland, Hans2; Hoek, Gerard1

doi: 10.1097/01.ede.0000391897.18320.1d
Abstracts: ISEE 22nd Annual Conference, Seoul, Korea, 28 August–1 September 2010: Travel-time Air Pollution Exposure, Energy Expenditure, and Health Outcomes: Use of New Technologies and Results

1University of Utrecht, Institute for Risk Assessment Sciences, Utrecht, The Netherlands; and 2Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, Bilthoven, The Netherlands.

Abstracts published in Epidemiology have been reviewed by the societies at whose meetings the abstracts have been accepted for presentation. These abstracts have not undergone review by the Editorial Board of Epidemiology.


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Although from a societal point of view a modal shift from car to bicycle may have beneficial health effects due to decreased air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and increased levels of physical activity, from an individual point of view adverse health effects such as higher exposure to air pollution and risk of a traffic accident may prevail. This paper describes whether the health benefits from the increased physical activity of a modal shift for urban commutes outweigh the health risks.

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We have summarized the literature for air pollution, traffic accidents, and physical activity using systematic reviews supplemented with recent key studies. Next, we quantified the impact on all-cause mortality when 500,000 people would make a transition from a car to a bicycle for the short roundtrips (<7 km) on a daily basis in the Netherlands. We have expressed mortality impacts in life years gained or lost making use of life table calculations.

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For the people who shift from car to bicycle, we estimated that beneficial effects of the increased physical activity are substantially larger (3–14 months life gained) than the potential mortality effect of increased inhaled air pollution doses (10–41 days life lost) and the effect on traffic accidents (0.6–1 day lost).

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The health benefits of cycling are 11 times larger than the risks relative to car driving for the individual subjects shifting mode of transport. Societal benefits are even larger due to a modest reduction in air pollution emissions and traffic accidents.

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