Photo by Blubel on Unsplash

Sustainability, Health and Cycling.


Following the success of cycling at the London Olympics back in 2012, which propelled Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton into the limelight, and now four Tour de France wins by British based Chris Froome following the historic win by Bradley Wiggins, are the Great British public getting back on their bikes and not just to find work? At the mass cycling event ‘Ride 100’ held in London in 2012 even London Mayor Boris Johnson (17 stone) took part, commenting that he was no “chiselled whippet”. Boris is of course also known for the introduction of the Boris bike in the capital. He stated:

The truth is it’s not that hard, and I’m here to prove it. I am 17 stone, I’m by no means fit, and I got myself round that (100 mile)course in a perfectly respectable time. Not supersonic, but perfectly respectable…The message we’re trying to get over is this is for everybody”.

The Department of Transport has produced figures on walking and cycling by local area based on a survey in 2010/11. The key findings include 10% of adults cycle at least once per week but this varies a great deal by area (from over 50% to less than 5%) and 11% of adults cycle for at least half an hour at least once per month but again with huge variations (35%-4%). Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cambridge  reports 52% cycling at least once per week and the highest rates are reported in cities and boroughs within cities. The Cycling Touring Club (CTC) reports cycling is up by 20% in the last 12 years from 4 billion kms in 1998 to 5 billion kms in 2011.

Why do we cycle? The survey suggests that 16% do so for utility purposes and 77% for recreation.

So this is good news. For society, a shift from cars to cycling may bring about reduced air pollution, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and increased physical activity. For the individual, there is an increase in exposure to air pollution and risk of road accidents but health benefits of cycling are well understood. According to the NHS choices website, these include helping you to lose weight, reducing stress and improving fitness. The example of calorie burning is given: someone weighing 80kgs (12st 9lbs) will burn more than 650 calories in an hour’s riding. As a keen road cyclist, I can burn 1500 calories on a weekend ride. Of course, there are concerns about death and injury on the roads, even Bradley Wiggins has been involved in a collision back in the UK after winning the Tour de France. Department of Transport figures for 2011 indicate that 107 cyclists were killed, but this figure is declining from 2004. However, combined figures for deaths and injuries show these steadily rising to 19,215 in 2011. What of course we really need to know is the relative risk of cycling compared to say horse riding, other forms of motor transport or any other activities. We need to know how many deaths per 100,000 kms of cycling and then to ask, whatever the number is, is cycling beneficial despite the risk?  Depending on who you ask, the health benefits of cycling do seem to outweigh the risks. Hartog et al in their study (2010) argue:

on average the estimated health benefits of cycling were substantially larger relative to car driving for individuals shifting their mode of transport”.

Cycling is not just an individual issue, it is a social issue and perhaps a political issue as well. Both Denmark and the Netherlands have higher rates of cycling than the UK. This might be obvious given the geography, but the story is not as simple as the relative lack of hills, it is also down to political and urban planning decisions taken and active policy decisions by politicians over decades to make the countries cycle friendly, to get people back on their bikes.

In ’The Energy glut – the politics of fatness in an overheating world’ Roberts and Edwards (2010) argue that fossil fuels are making whole populations fat/obese. We have replaced food with fossil fuels as our main energy source. We have become sedentary, replacing walking and cycling as active transport with mechanical modes of transport, mainly the motor car. Whole societies are using the energy oil has given us to replace physical labour. The upside is the construction of advanced civilizations and huge increases in food production, and the ability to buy stuff, the downside is that as countries develop and begin to increase their car use, whole populations get fat, and experience death and injury on the roads that make cycling injury statistics seem small. Did I mention the contribution to climate change?

Cycling as active transport is a positive sustainability issue, but it is also complicated in that in achieving positive health gains and reducing carbon emissions on the one hand, we have to also consider the carbon footprint of cycling. This includes the manufacture of cycles and  their transporting around the world. Raleigh manufactures in the Far East and my own Bike, a ‘Merida’, was shipped to the UK from overseas. Then of course there are the clothes and accessories and the taking part in weekend ‘sportives’ which may involve driving to events across the country. I have not calculated the carbon footprint of my own cycling interests nor have I calculated yet how many car miles I have not done as a result of cycling. I have to confess that I am one of the 77% who cycle for recreation, having not yet bitten the bullet on commuting. My only excuse is a 20-mile round trip to work on an A road in West Cornwall at, yes even in Cornwall, ‘rush hour’ where far too many drivers seem not have yet woken up and speed by far too closely.

Cyclists are more at risk of death on the roads than car drivers, but the health benefits outweigh that risk. I will repeat, that you also need to know the absolute risk not the relative risk between any other activity you routinely undertake and cycling if you are going to make a judgment.  In 2015, there were 43 more cyclists killed or injured than car drivers per 1 billion vehicle miles:  1,875 motorcyclists killed or injured, 1,025 cyclists, 24 for cars, 10 for HGV. In the UK, cyclists account for 6% of all road deaths reflecting that there are far more car drivers than cyclists. For perspective, however:

When people say cycling is dangerous, they’re wrong. Sitting down– is what is going to kill you

(Dr Adrian Davis in Walker 2017)

Cycling Embassy ( a volunteer-run charity promoting cycling) argues the following (based on some data):

“According to DfT figures, the risk of being killed or seriously injured whilst cycling in the UK is about the same as the risk of being killed or seriously injured as a pedestrian, per mile travelled. Recent research by UCL found that the risk of death per hour of travel is approximately the same for walking, cycling or driving for men aged between 21 and 49.

  1. Statistically, cycling is not dangerous, at least relative to other forms of transport. Indeed, other modes of transport can carry significantly higher risks, for particular groups.
  2. Cycling itself is an intrinsically safe activity. What danger that is involved in cycling is posed by motor traffic and poor road design that pushes the two modes into conflict. Notably, where safe conditions for cycling are created, as in European countries, the risk of injury or death is substantially lower”. 


My value system approves of cycling, I believe it has health benefits as well as some risk but the risks could be far better managed if UK policymakers went even further in their plans for cycling. I consider the overall risk to be more perception than reality, but that is enough for many people not to get the bike out. Cycling is, therefore, a political project that has health consequences, we need to work towards becoming a ‘Bike Nation’ (Walker 2017). If you are afraid to get out, then you might benefit from cycling training plans and support from services such as Cycle for Fitness*.


Walker P (2017) Bike Nation. Yellow Jersey Press, London.

*declared interest: this service is run by my brother!