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Cycling could cut billions from public health costs

Swedes are one of the most sedentary peoples in the world, but municipal planning could improve people’s health considerably and save lives in the long term, according to the results of a new cost-benefit analysis by Sweco based on cycling in Gothenburg. Sweco is now urging municipalities to include a clear public health perspective in the assessment and prioritisation of infrastructure measures.*

According to the SCAPIS study, which was conducted by the Swedish university hospitals, only 7 percent of all Swedes get the recommended 2.5 hours of physical exercise per week. This inactivity has serious consequences for both the individual and the community. According to Svenskt Friluftsliv, a Swedish organisation that promotes outdoor activity, diseases relating to physical inactivity cost communities billions each year due to increased health care costs and loss of productivity.

But there are several ways to increase physical activity, and urban planning is a deciding factor. It is possible to calculate the societal and health gains from various solutions even at the planning stages of a city, neighbourhood or factory. Despite the availability of proven methods, this is seldom done today, leading to missed opportunities for municipalities and regions to promote health and to save lives in the long term.

Increased cycling is a versatile and effective way to promote physical activity. Thirty minutes of low-intensity cycling per day is enough to reduce the risk of many serious illnesses, such as cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, osteoporosis, stroke, dementia and depression.

To illustrate the benefits of increased cycling, Sweco conducted a cost-benefit analysis based on cycling in Gothenburg before and during the coronavirus pandemic within the context of the Urban Insight knowledge platform. According to information from the City of Gothenburg, travel by bicycle increased from 100,000 trips in 2019 to 115,000 in 2020 (excluding the bicycle rental system).

Assuming that the average distance of travel is 4.1 kilometres, as per the city’s travel pattern study, cycling saved around SEK 1 billion in 2020. Even more notable is that 25 premature deaths could be avoided thanks to the physical activity that cycling entails.

Even though these results are impressive, they are based on a relatively small percentage of cyclists when compared with the potential results. Despite the increase in cyclists, cycling represents only 9 percent of total travel in Gothenburg, even though studies show that 45 percent of the city’s inhabitants live less than a 30-minute bicycle ride from work. If all these people would cycle instead, it would mean a socio-economic gain of around SEK 3.6 billion annually and would result in 91 fewer premature deaths. This is a low estimate since the socio-economic calculation does not take sick leave and productivity losses into consideration.

These results are not unique to Gothenburg. Similar studies on potential effects have been conducted in several Swedish cities and regions. They show that there is great potential for greatly increased cycling in Sweden, which can have a considerable economic impact on both the individual and the community.

Extending the bicycle path network is essential to expanding travel by bicycle. There is currently inadequate access to a safe, secure, interconnected cycling infrastructure in Sweden, which means that the car often trumps the bicycle, even when the route is actually faster by bicycle.

To accelerate expansion of the bicycle infrastructure, there must be more focus on heath and daily exercise. Today, there is no clear public health perspective when assessing and prioritising infrastructure measures, so the benefits of cycling investments are not fully recognised. Instead, travel time is the deciding factor in socio-economic transportation calculations. This promotes car traffic but is unfair to bicycle traffic, whose travel time is seldom given a socio-economic value. A more effective way to promote cycling is with the ‘shared speed’ concept, which means that the speed of pedestrians and cyclists is the norm on a specific route instead of the speed of the cars.

Increasing cycling as a daily transport mode provides many concrete benefits to people, the environment and society. It is time to focus on the public health perspective when prioritising modes of transport and to let infrastructure financing reflect the goals and visions determined at the regional and municipal levels.

Björn Sax Kaijser, Cycling Planner, Sweco

David Lindelöw, PhD, Transport Planner, Sweco

Mats Hermansson, Division Manager, Social Development and Transport Planning, Sweco

Vania Khairallah, Sustainability Expert, Sweco

*This article has been published in Swedish press and media