As public health officials implement safety measures against the coronavirus pandemic, governors in states like New York, California and Washington have taken the lead, often looking to Europe and Asia for inspiration on the design of stay-at-home orders and other policies to “flatten the curve” of infection.
One such approach, implemented in Spain, Italy and France, is an outright ban on recreational cycling. From a public health standpoint, this is a bad idea and should not be emulated by U.S. officials.
According to data from the popular exercise app Strava, California has far more bike rides — several million per year — logged than any other state. Preserving the health benefits from all this physical activity would be especially welcome after California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent veto of Senate Bill 127, which would have required CalTrans to include bicycle and pedestrian considerations in all major transportation projects.
Some European officials argue that recreational cycling should be prohibited to reduce the need for emergency medical services resulting from accidents. These policies rest on a faulty premise — that cycling increases the demand for ER visits and intensive care units.
This notion ignores the well-documented health benefits of physical activity. According to research published in The Lancet, inadequate exercise is responsible for 9% of all deaths worldwide, exacting a huge toll on medical facilities.
Every year about a million Americans are hospitalized for heart failure and one out of every five of these patients is admitted to an intensive care unit. By comparison, cycling accidents result in about 25,000 hospitalizations per year in the U.S., with a similar proportion requiring intensive care. Therefore cycling results in about 5,000 ICU incidents compared to 200,000 ICU incidents from heart failure.
Each year about 1 in every 1,000 adults who ride bikes in the U.S. are hospitalized in an accident, while 3 out of every 1,000 Americans are hospitalized due to heart failure. Of course, cardiac disease is just one of many conditions, from depression to immune system health, improved by exercise.
One could argue that the health benefit of exercise emerges over months and years, while hospitals need to prioritize ICU resources immediately. However, exercise is not just a preventive measure for chronic diseases, but a near-term solution. Exercise is one of the top recommendations for treating cardiovascular disease and has been shown to reduce hospital admissions.
Under normal circumstances, roughly 11 million Americans actively use their gym membership. As the gyms have closed — along with baseball diamonds, football and soccer fields, ice skating rinks, public parks and basketball courts — cycling represents a viable alternative that does not require groups to congregate together.
With fewer people driving on the roads during the COVID-19 pandemic, our roads are safer than usual for cycling. The remaining risks can be significantly reduced with infrastructure that separates bicycles from automobile traffic. This infrastructure can be added quickly and inexpensively with the use of painted bike lanes and pop-up protected bike lanes that use simple physical barriers such as planters.
An increase in the number of cyclists on the road will not make cycling more dangerous; the research shows just the opposite, because there is safety in numbers. Urban areas with the highest rates of cycling have the lowest percentage of car-related accidents per trip. Naturally, there may be locations and circumstances, such as public bike share programs, in which cycling should be controlled or even disallowed.
Fortunately, thus far, state officials have not implemented bike bans like those seen in Europe. By encouraging more Americans to dust off that bike in the garage now, we might even help the United States shift gears into long-term improvements in public health and safety.
Paul F. Steinberg is a professor of political science and environmental policy at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.