This post may contain affiliate links, which help to keep Discerning Cyclist rolling. Learn more.
Politicians have woken up to the need to alter the driving and cycling infrastructure of towns and cities. The combining forces of pollution, congestion, long-term concerns over health and a sedentary lifestyle, plus environmental concerns, have made laboratories out of the streets.
Most governments want to make cycling and walking the natural choice for shorter journeys, or as part of a longer journey. The UK government termed this ‘active travel’. Governments across the world have invested billions in measuring the ways in which people circulate the urban environment.
Increased surveys of commuters and users have identified priorities for change. One clear message from an IPSOS survey says 52% of people across 28 countries feel cycling from one place to another in their area is too dangerous.
Cycling v Driving
Adopting the principles of looking at multiple outcomes of cycling versus driving creates a wider view of the risks involved in both. There are short-term risks and long-term risks.
One report from the National Library of Medicine concluded that 217 premature deaths could be saved annually in Mexico if the country would substitute car journeys and match the number of bicycle trips as the Netherlands. It considered the impact on health, air pollution and traffic fatalities.
Financial institutions are also measuring active travel. The World Bank published a recent report highlighting the need to maintain investment in alternative forms of travel away from motorised vehicles.
One example inside it compared the higher cost of building a metro line versus a network of segregated bicycle lanes in Seville and compared the number of trips per day along both.
Dangers of Cycling
A helpful 2019 National Travel Survey of 14,000 individuals in England was conducted into active travel and found patterns in walking and cycling. The key dangers were identified as road safety concerns, too much traffic which also was too fast and then the weather.
The public needs to be involved to help answer questions that planners have. In 2019, in England, cycling only accounted for about 1% of all distance travelled by the average person, so this imbalance delivers disproportionate results when we assess the dangers of cycling.
Dangers of Driving
You are relatively safe inside a car. Of course there is risk when sharing the road with careless and dangerous road users. However, the absolute number of accidents is eye-watering. An average of six million people in the USA are involved in accidents each year and half experience some sort of injury.
We hear about these stats as they make headlines but there are risks we don’t hear about such as air pollution, noise pollution, anxiety, stress, blood pressure levels and back pain. The World Health Organisation says the use of motorised transport is part of a sedentary lifestyle and is contributing to mortality, cardiovascular disease, cancer and type-2 diabetes.
Is Cycling More Dangerous Than Driving?
In 2020, in Great Britain, the UK government said there were 684 reported fatalities of car occupants, goods vehicle occupants and other vehicle occupants. The same report showed there were 141 reported fatalities of pedal cyclists.
It then said that there were 69,430 reported casualties involving car occupants, goods vehicle occupants and other vehicle occupants. The same report showed there were 16,294 reported casualties involving pedal cyclists.
It’s clear that, in line with planners, we have to look beyond the absolute numbers of accidents which occur on the roads when considering which is more dangerous. These black and white figures ignore the difference in the number of drivers and cyclists on the road.
To help clear things up a bit, the same UK government report showed the rate of incident per billion miles travelled for different vehicle types between 2010 and 2020. This showed around 310 fatalities and casualties per billion vehicle miles for cars and 3,268 fatalities and casualties per billion pedalled miles for cyclists.
The rate at which a cyclist in the UK may be involved in a reported accident on the road is greater than a motorist. That’s a fact but we should look further than that. For example, the rate of incidents involving cyclists is falling.
Part of the reason why is that changes in the UK cycling infrastructure leads to safer conditions in some places. The UK has a long, long way to go before the mindset changes – motorists and cyclists are further apart in their wishes for how their roads should look than ever before.
There is evidence that cycling miles are increasing, which means more cyclists are out on the roads. One piece in the British Medical Journal suggests that there is ‘safety in numbers’ – a motorist is actually less likely to collide with a person bicycling when there are more people bicycling.
Moving beyond the accidents and fatalities which occur on the road, we look then at the longer-term dangers. We have previously examined how longer commutes using cars increase the sedentary behaviours which lead to health issues such as obesity.
Cycling to work is the antidote to this – you are achieving the same end-goal and measuring up to the World Health Organzation’s recommendations of 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day.
Longer driving durations are linked to an increased risk of smoking and poorer mental health. Cycling can be stressful too of course but the overall mental and physical health benefits clearly favour cycling over driving.
Is It Better to Cycle or Drive?
Cycling provides more benefits to health than driving does. Cycling burns more calories, it boosts blood circulation, lowers exposure to pollution, reduces risks of heart attacks and is linked to reduced incidences of cancer. Driving is sedentary and in itself does not provide the same benefits.
Cycling is proven to make you smarter, reduce stress and anxiety, expands the opportunity to get a bit of freedom and independence, boost your immune system and another British Medical Journal study says you may even live longer. There are GPs in the UK who are, according to The Guardian newspaper, actually prescribing cycling as a means of improving health.
Is Cycling “Worth the Risk”?
By comparison with driving, cycling has proven scientific, sociological, psychological, mental and physical health advantages. The dangers of cycling are reducing as we adapt to seeing more bicycles on the road.
Cycling infrastructure will keep improving as more and more journeys are made by bike.
As more of us turn to cycling as a mode of transportation as opposed to purely for leisure or fitness, the perceived risk of danger will fall. The awareness of other road users of cyclists will increase and, as more and more networks of cycle-friendly roads, paths and trails link together, those risks should fall farther.