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Cycling could be worth as much as £17 billion to the NHS – it’s worth the investment

Get your tweed on. Ted Eytan, CC BY-SA

Cycling could be worth as much as £17 billion to the NHS – it’s worth the investment

Yellow truly is the colour of cycling in the UK. The victories of Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome in the World’s biggest bike race, the Tour de France, thrust cycling into the headlines. The visit of Le Tour to England in 2014 kindled a Lycra-led euphoria that some have tried to bottle up as a legacy for health and well-being.

Liberal Democrat MP and cycling lobbyist Julian Huppert (among others) has been waving his own yellow flag – and has received government support for his call for a long-term commitment to cycling and walking. Huppert is co-chair of the all party parliamentary group on cycling and recently highlighted the fact that the infrastructure bill (which recently came before parliament) makes a commitment to road building but neglects to make similar provision for cyclists and walkers.

Is this all brouhaha and political manoeuvring, or is there a real measurable benefit to the call for us all to take to two wheels?

Poster boy Wiggins. Robert King, CC BY

Health benefits

Huppert and others have based their rhetoric on a review paper, published in The Lancet, which suggested a plethora of positive effects for a number of health outcomes linked to an increase in cycling and walking in urban areas. They suggested that “within 20 years, reductions in the prevalence of type 2 diabetes, dementia, ischaemic heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, and cancer because of increased physical activity would lead to savings of roughly £17 billion (in 2010 prices) for the NHS”. We also know that the documented effects on mental health and well-being alone are enough to make you consider getting into the saddle.

The authors of The Lancet study modelled for health effects, road traffic injuries and cost impacts, and included a series of “sensitivity analyses” (which accounted for numerous variables). The authors stated that, even with the most conservative of sensitivity analyses, “there would be a substantial reduction in the potential effect on the NHS budget, with savings of roughly £6 billion in 20 years. Irrespective of the scenario … increased walking and cycling would have a positive effect on NHS expenditure.” Moreover, their analysis and discussion of the health benefits and disease prevalence was equally impressive.

Changing habits

The authors did acknowledge, however, that the challenge of implementing behaviour-change initiatives “can be quite difficult.” They made the helpful suggestion that “activities that can become part of everyday life, such as walking or cycling to work or school, might be more likely to be sustained than are activities that necessitate attendance at specific venues” (such as gyms) and this fits well with current thinking on implementing exercise regimes and sticking to them.

Going Dutch. Franklin Heijnen, CC BY

As we know from the plans to build cycling superhighways in London amid safety fears for cyclists on busy roads with other traffic, that increasing cyclist numbers doesn’t come without fears of road safety dangers.

This is clearly a leading disincentive (or perhaps excuse) for some, for not taking up cycling or walking. The suggestion is that improved infrastructure and planning would segregate road users whose speeds differ greatly (as is done in the Netherlands). Such policies “could have double benefits such as lessening of the risk of road injury and encouragement of more people to cycle or walk, who will then reap the health benefits”.

The NHS have also produced a special cycle safety report to aid those wanting to take to their bike.

The bottom line

The bottom line is that exercise is good and reduces the risk of developing a number of major of health conditions. Cycling and walking are excellent ways to encourage a healthier lifestyle – and particularly because they can be linked to a daily commute. The big “but” though, is that the government has to get on board and commit to infrastructure to facilitate this lifestyle change.

British Cycling have looked at the evidence from both the UK and other countries which has shown that increasing cycling levels is best achieved through sustained expenditure on cycling programmes at a level of £10 per head or more. For example, cycling demonstration towns – including Aylesbury, Brighton & Hove, Darlington, Derby, Exeter and Lancaster with Morecambe – doubled levels of cycling by spending between £14 and £17 per head and the mayor of London plans to spend £18 per head. The Netherlands currently spends more than £24 per head.

British Cycling puts it into numbers. British Cycling

Lycra revolution

If you are of the belief that more roads and more traffic equals more progress and growth then the cycling revolution may not be for you. But if you have experienced the calm tranquillity of European cities that have integrated their transport systems well to account for human sensibilities and health, over and above the priority for traffic and the motor vehicle, then you will have seen what the future could look like – and maybe it’s time to get your own wheels turning.

Einstein said of his theory of relativity that he “thought of it while riding my bicycle”, so if you don’t fancy donning Lycra, there’s always tweed.