31 October – World Cities Day

30 October 2017

Healthier, faster cheaper: Let’s ride our bike together

The world is facing a massive and rapid urbanisation. Every day, almost 180.000 people move from the countryside to the city and it is estimated that, by 2030, 60% of the world’s population will be living in urban areas.1 This will reach 80% in Europe2 making man-made environment the dominant environmental determinant of health and well-being. At the same time, the world is facing a massive and rapid pandemic of diabetes: In Europe, 60 million adults are living with diabetes today (over 90% with type 2 diabetes) and 32 million more are at high risk of developing the condition, making diabetes one of the main health issues across Europe. Urbanisation and the increasing incidence of type 2 diabetes have close ties. If the main causes of the explosion of the pandemic are unhealthy diet and low physical activity, urbanisation is therefore a major contributing factor. The way cities are built play a crucial role in the way we live, we commute, we exercise and we socialise.

As the world is becoming increasingly urban, the promotion of healthier living in cities should be at the heart of strategies developed by urban planners and implemented by policy makers. This is extremely important for the prevention of type 2 diabetes as well as to ensure good control of blood glucose levels for people with diabetes.

On World Cities Day, Lauren Quinn, former IDF Europe intern, spoke to Dr. Randy Rzewnicki, Ph.D, Health Policy Officer of the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF), an organisation fighting to ensure that bicycle use achieves its fullest potential so as to bring about sustainable mobility and public well-being.

RandyRandy, We have all heard about the sentence of the poet Juvenal “Mens sana in corpore sano », a healthy mind in a healthy body. is this what cycling gives you? Can you tell us what are the benefits of cycling on health?

Indeed, this is what cycling brings to you, and even more. According to the World Health Organisation, cycling is one of the best means of transport, hence a bicycle is very much a “Best Buy“! Cycling and walking form central parts of the WHO draft Global Action Plan for Physical Activity.

Like walking, cycling is accessible to many, especially now with the spread of public bicycle hire in many cities. This should help people who do effectively no physical activity start doing something. If they start to walk or cycle for transport, and if they make it a daily habit, this would be a huge health benefit for them. In fact, it has been estimated that if all adult citizens of Europe were to get an extra 15 minutes per day of walking or cycling, 100,000 premature deaths could be avoided each year, as well as many diseases such as type 2 diabetes. You know, urban cycling has been called an ideal fitness exercise because of the traffic lights! It provides a moment to have a break before racing off again as some people do. It is a great way to get your daily dose of physical activity which is important to prevent many non-communicable diseases and their complications.

For many potential users, one of the main barriers to cycling is air pollution. However, pollution is not an excuse and not a reason to stop you from getting on your bike. In fact, you would have to cycle more than six or seven hours, day after day in the worst polluted cities in the world before the air pollution caused you more problems than the benefits of the cycling. Pollution therefore is not an excuse to not get on your bike, and will be talking about that at the Velo-City Global conference in Rio in 2018. https://ecf.com/projects/velo-city/velo-city-2018-rio-de-janeiro

Pollution is one important issue for walkers and cyclists. Furthermore, cities are often organised around cars even if still in Europe we are lucky compared to other continents where sidewalks are non-existent, cities are crossed by motorways and city centres can be dangerous areas, especially for cyclists. How can we make cities cycle friendly? What works?

You are absolutely right, and making any city welcoming to people riding bicycles means making it friendly to everybody. If you leave your child walk around without fear of the traffic when she’s eight years old, and if your 80-year-old friend or relative feels comfortable visiting you on foot or by cycle, this is a cycle friendly city. Because cities for cyclists are really just cities friendly for people.

For us, the first key message for traffic planning is that the speed of motor vehicles, the volume and the total number of motor vehicles need to be reduced dramatically. These reductions will make cities more liveable, sustainable, pleasant places to be for inhabitants and visitors, and for shops’ customers as well.

At the ECF, we’ve been working with the WHO to help people understand the health benefits of making cities places where people want to walk and cycle more than they do now. For example, traffic engineers need to calculate what the costs and benefits of changes are to justify them and convince decision-makers. We help train people to do these calculations and demonstrate the economic value of the health benefits of increasing walking and cycling. To do so, we use the HEAT tool developed by WHO which provides transport engineers with an estimate of the societal value of reduced mortality from physical activity of regular walking or cycling.

And the result is crystal clear: In the Netherlands, they have calculated that the health benefits were equivalent to 3% of GDP. Across the European Union, we have calculated, by using the HEAT tool, that the health benefits of cycling approach €200 billion per year.

Anyone interested in learning more about the HEAT tool, how can it be used and why should it be used can join our upcoming free training webinar on 06 November at 14.00 (Brussels time). More information is available on our dedicated webpage https://ecf.com/what-we-do/health-and-environment/heat

We mentioned earlier that public bicycle hire works. Is it effective?

Yes, is the short answer, as long as it’s done well. Like anything else, when a system tries to save too much money, or bring too much money to the sponsors, or does not adapt to the city’s particular circumstances, it can fail. But they are generally quite successful, and Paris is a good example.

In general, public cycle hire has been such a success that many cities and companies want to enter the game. My view is that this initiative is a very good way for people to learn to cycle around their city before they make the investment of getting their own bike. It’s a great example of “try before you buy”. This is exactly what we spoke about earlier. We need to get people who do not walk or cycle to start doing it and cycle hire is a great tool to do so.

In this sense, the emergence of the e-bike is an interesting step. I’ve been very happy to learn that e-bike usage contributes significantly to population health because more people can cycle distances that they thought were too far to go without electric assistance, and more people can start cycling to work, to school, or to shops, and arrive in time, and in good shape. However my recommendation is “Try before you buy”.

Earlier we spoke about pollution as a barrier, but security is another one and we often hear that cycle hire is dangerous as people do not respect the traffic regulations and cyclists are accused of not knowing how to ride a bike…A recent study in one major US city showed that there were zero fatalities linked to bike hire and another in Barcelona demonstrated that the risks were tiny compared to the benefits. Urban myths often die hard.

Physical activity is a great tool to prevent type 2 diabetes and ensure good control of blood glucose levels for people with the condition. If I still do not want to ride a bike in the city but want to practise a physical, could I use an exercise bike? If so, what is better for my health: exercise bikes or road bikes?

Both are good as long as you practice it regularly. One advantage of the regular use of road bicycles is that it serves dual purposes: you get where you’re going to and at the same moment you exercise. Furthermore, you certainly get there cheaper than almost any other form of transport, and very often quicker.

Again, we need to be moving every day in order to stay healthy. It is the regularity of walking or cycling for transport that makes it a public health ‘Best Buy’. This is why, and you may find it surprising, I do not follow sport, even cycling on TV. I feel that spectator sports in general do more harm than good to public health: it relies on much too much sitting down and not enough physical activity for everyone except the athletes involved.

World Cities Day represents a great opportunity to address health and physical activities and issues linked to the way we develop our cities. As a representative of the European Cyclists’ Federation, for me the key message here is: Whether this is your first time or it is normal for you to be cycling in your town or city: Keep it up. Every day, whatever the weather, whatever the situation, keep on cycling or walking to get where you need to go.

[1] http://www.un.org/ga/Istanbul+5/bg10.htm

[2] http://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/environment-and-health/urban-health/news/news/2016/07/environment-and-health-for-european-cities-in-the-21st-century