Transportation & Public Health Fact Sheet

Transportation  & Health

• Only 46% of U.S. adults engage in recommended levels of physical activity associated with health benefits — 30 minutes of “moderate intensity” 5 times a week or 20 minutes of vigorous effort 3 times a week[1]; over 1/2 of the leisure time of the avg. American is spent watching TV; every hour spent daily in a car increases body fat 6%; heart attack risk triples for people who’ve spent the past hour in their car.    66% of adults are overweight or obese[3].

• Almost 33% of high-school-age teenagers do not meet recommended levels of physical activity[2].   16% of children and adolescents are overweight and 34% are at risk of overweight[4].

• Change in diet without increased physical activity is unlikely to result in lasting weight loss.

• Diseases Linked to Lack of Physical Activity or Overweight:  30-50% increase in coronary heart disease, 30% increase in hypertension, 20-50% increase in strokes, 30-40% increase in colon cancer, 20-30% increase in breast cancer, significantly higher risk of type 2 diabetes, possible increased risk of onset of Alzheimer’s and symptoms of Parkinson’s, probably risk in men of erectile dysfunction.

• Half to 2/3rds of US children live in areas that violate EPA air quality standards for car-pollution-caused ozone

Health and Transportation Infrastructure

Active transportation and obesity rates are inversely related[5].

Reno, Nevada: sprawled out, poor transport planning, obesity rate: 19.1% in 2001.

Groningen, the Netherlands: compact city, progressive urban planning, emphasis on cycling; obesity rate: less than 10% in 2002.

In communities that create a good walking environment – e.g. sidewalks and desirable destinations – the number of people getting moderate amounts of exercise


Health and Cycling

Children and teens who cycled to school were 4.8 times as likely as those who walked or traveled by motorized transport to be in the top 25 percent of cardiovascular fitness[6].   Performing wheel-related activities (ex. bicycling) as an adolescent reduces chances of being overweight as an adult by 48 percent[7].

Regular cycling for transport helps reduce the risk of Type 2 Diabetes, strokes, cardiovascular issues, and obesity[8] [9] [10] [11].

On average, a Dutch study found that cyclists were absent from work 7.4 days per year whereas non-cyclists were absent 8.7 days per year[12].  A Danish study found a 39% reduction in all-cause mortality among people who cycled to work compared to all other forms of physical activity[13].

Need To Address Gender Gap

In the USA, over ¾ of cyclists are male.  In Europe, the gender split is nearly 50/50.

When surveyed, 46% of women surveyed agreed with the statement “aggressive drivers put me off walking or cycling compared with 38% of men.[14].   The key deterrent to increased female (and male) cycling is a perceived lack of safety when riding on the road, which would be reduced by increased bicycle facilities [15].

Infrastructure and Cycling 

There is a positive correlation between levels of bicycle infrastructure (lanes and paths) and levels of bicycle commuting[16].

  • In the Netherlands, an extensive network of “protected bicycle lanes” installed since the 1970s has reserved historic patterns of lowering numbers of cyclists – by 2005 about 30% of all trips were made by bike[17] In Germany, a similar policy giving priority to bikes in urban transportation plans has resulted in the average adult doing between 2.31 and 2.54 bicycle trips per week. [18]
  • Seattle, Washington went from fewer than 70 miles of bike routes in 2006 to more than 130 miles now, with hopes of reaching 450 miles by 2017 – as a result, between 2000 and 2005, there was a 27% increase in bicycling trips.[19]

In an American survey, 40% stated that they would commute by bike if safe facilities were available[20].

About 25% of daily trips in the US are less than 1 mile; about 40% are less than 2 miles; over 50% of commuter trips are less than 5 miles — all bikeable distances.[21].

Safety In Numbers 

In Western Europe, cycling-related deaths declined by 60% between 1975 and 2000, a decrease that was not seen in the U.S.

Cycling injuries in the U.S. are between 8 and 30 times more common than in the Netherlands or Germany[22].

The majority of cycling injuries occur on streets or highways where bicycles share the road with cars.

This fact sheet is based on research compiled by Research Scientist Anne Lusk. PhD, summarized  by Intern Rebecca Scharfstein, and edited by Steven E. Miller at the Harvard School of Public Health.

For more Information…

[1] Kruger J, Yore MM, Kohl HW III. Leisure-Time Physical Activity Patterns by Weight Control Status: 1999-2002 NHANES. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007;39(5):788-95. 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Wang Y, Beydoun MA. The Obesity Epidemic in the United States—Gender, Age, Socioeconomic, Racial/Ethnic, and Geographic Characteristics: A Systematic Review and Meta-Regression Analysis. Epidemiol Rev. 2007;29:6-28.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bassett DR Jr, Pucher J, Buehler R, Thompson DL, Crouter SE. Walking, Cycling, and Obesity Rates in Europe, North America, and Australia. J Phys Act Health. 2008;5(6):795-814.

[6] Cooper AR, Wedderkopp N, Wang H, Andersen LB, Froberg K, Page AS. Active travel to school and cardiovascular fitness in Danish children and adolescents. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2006;38(10):1724-31.

[7] Menschik D, Ahmed S, Alexander MH, Blum RW. Adolescent physical activities as predictors of young adult weight. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2008;162(1):29-33.

[8] Huy C, Becker S, Gomolinsky U, Klein T, Thiel A. Health, medical risk factors, and bicycle use in everday life in the over-50 population. J Aging Phys Act. 2008;16(4):454-64.

[9] Hu G, Qiao Q, Silventoinen K, Eriksson JG, Jousilahti P, Lindström J, Valle TT, Nissinen A, Tuomilehto J. Occupational, commuting, and leisure-time physical activity in relation to risk for Type 2 diabetes in middle-aged finish men and women. Diabetologia. 2003;46(3):322-9.

[10] Hu G, Sarti C, Jousilahti P, Silventoinen K, Barengo NC, Tuomilehto J. Leisure Time, Occupational, and Commuting Physical Activity and the Risk of Stroke. Stroke. 2005;36(9):1994-9.

[11] Barengo NC, Hu G, Lakka TA, Pekkarinen H, Nissinen A, Tuomilehto J. Low physical activity as a predictor for total and cardiovascular disease mortality in middle-aged men and women in Finland. Eur Heart J. 2004;25(24):2204-11.

[12] Hendriksen I. Reduced sickness absence in regular commuter cyclists can save employers 27 million euros. _______. 2009;______.

[13] Bauman AE, Rissel C. Cycling and health: an opportunity for positive change? MJA. 2009;190(7):347.

[14] Garrard J. Healthy revolutions: promoting cycling among women. Health Promot J Austr. 2003;14:213-5.

[15] Women and Cycling in Sydney: Determinants and Deterrents: Results of a Pilot Survey. 2001.

[16] Dill J, Carr T. Bicycle Commuting and Facilities in the Major U.S. Cities: If you Build Them, Commuters Will Use Them – Another Look. _______. 2003;_____.

[17] Garrard J. Healthy revolutions: promoting cycling among women. Health Promot J Austr. 2003;14:213-5.

[18] Garrard J. Healthy revolutions: promoting cycling among women. Health Promot J Austr. 2003;14:213-5.

[19] Cohen A. Seattle getting better for bikes, still needs work, club says. Seattle Post-Intelligencer. 15 May 2009.

[20] Ride of the Environment. League of American Bicyclists. 2009.

[21] Bicycle Fact Sheet. ARB. 2008.

[22] Bauman AE, Rissel C. Cycling and health: an opportunity for positive change? MJA. 2009;190(7):347.

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