Cycling benefits ‘outweigh’ air pollution impact

Investment in cycling infrastructure results in health benefits that far outweigh the detrimental impact of air pollution, researchers have claimed, following a major public health study.

The study by researchers at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) suggested that expanding designated cycling networks in cities could provide considerable health and economic benefits.

cycling in London air quality

Public health benefits from increasing the number of journeys made by bicycle is likely to outweigh the detrimental impacts of air pollution, researchers have cliamed. (Picture: Michaelpuche/

The analysis — part of the European Commission funded Physical Activity through Sustainable Transport Approaches (PASTA) project – analysed data from 167 European cities, looking at the size of cycling infrastructure in each of the cities and the number of journeys made by bicycle

The study included a health impact assessment of seven cities modelling different scenarios for the expansion of the cycling network, with projects of how an increase in cycling mode share could impact estimated mortality rates.

The study, published in Preventive Medicine, claimed that if all the assessed cities achieved a 24.7% cycling mode share for daily commuters, over 10,000 premature deaths could be avoided annually through improved air quality and a reduction in road traffic incidents.

‘Routine shift’

Commenting on the study, Natalie Mueller, ISGlobal researcher and lead author of the paper, said: “This is the first study evaluating the potential associations between cycling network length, mode share and associated health impacts across European cities.”

She claimed that the health impact assessment conducted as part of the study demonstrated that a ‘routine shift’ in the transport mode to cycling is positive for health due to the associated increase in physical activity adding: “benefits outweigh detrimental effects of air pollution and traffic incidents.”

According to the study, the greatest health benefits were found in a scenario where the assessed cities had cycle lanes in every street.

In that case, London could avoid up to 1,210 premature deaths yearly, the researchers claimed, followed by Rome with 433 fewer premature deaths yearly and Barcelona with 248 fewer premature deaths .

Ms Mueller concluded: “Once again we can see that getting people out of their own cars produces great health benefits. A combination of ‘push’ measures that make cars unattractive and ‘pull’ policies aimed at making public transport and cycling more appealing would be best to improve health and wellbeing in European cities.”

Research published in the UK last month, carried out by the environmental consultancy Eunomia has reached similar conclusions, suggesting that meeting targets to increase the number of trips made on foot and by bicycle in the UK alone would prevent as many as 8,300 premature deaths per year linked to air pollution (see story).

At present around air pollution is linked to around 40,000 premature deaths in the UK every year and up to 400,000 per year across the European Union.

Related Links
Study – Health impact assessment of cycling network expansions in European cities


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