Urban bike sharing programs improve city dwellers' lives by offering a convenient way to get around, exercise, and reduce pollution. But could cycling instead of driving could actually save lives? So says science. According to a study published earlier this summer by the British Medical Journal, a successful and widely used bike sharing program in Barcelona prevents 12 deaths a year.
Barcelona started its bike sharing program, Bicing, in 2007. Two years later, more than 180,000 citizens had enrolled: a full 11 percent of the city population. Since many of the people who participated in the program were likely new bikers transitioning from driving, the BMJ study examined the net impacts on public health resulting from a significant citywide shift to biking from driving. The researchers measured the health outcomes and mortality risk associated with changes in residents' amount of physical activity, chance of accidental injury, and exposure to air pollution.
Crunching data provided by the city of Barcelona and Bicing's management company, the researchers determined that despite increased risk of injuries and exposure to air pollution from biking (yes, even cycling has some negative health effects), the increased physical activity still decreased the death rate.
The researchers admit that assessing a messy real world situation like this one involves many variables that are difficult to quantify. (For example, who is transitioning from driving and who from public transportation? Do some people lead active lifestyles and others sedentary?). However, in all the scenarios they tested to account for differences in data, "a net benefit was always evident for Bicing users," the researchers concluded.