Bike-share Programs: Do Health Benefits Outweigh Safety Risks?

Sep 30, 2011, 2:42 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

Add New York to the growing list of cities with bike-share programs, which let people borrow bicycles from central locations, usually at very low cost per ride. The Big Apple’s bike sharing program should begin next summer and New Yorkers were invited to weigh in on where the bike stations should be located. According to the New York Times, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg submitted a request for a station near City Hall.

However, bike-share programs do introduce new risks, including biking accidents and exposure to air pollution. A recent British Medical Journal study offered a health impact assessment of the bike-share program in Barcelona, Spain, used by close to 200,000 members, to weigh the benefits of increased physical activity and reduced reliance on cars against potential risks. The study found that the increased use of biking over car travel avoided twelve deaths a year and reduced carbon dioxide emissions. Study authors concluded that the benefits of the bike-share program outweighed the safety risks.

Another study, by researchers from Hunter College of the City University of New York, looked at bike injuries in New York and found that even though the bicycling trend is taking off in New York City, the number of injuries has actually been on the decline. In October, New York City will begin collecting data on bicycle accidents for the first time.

Biking advocates often suggest new or rusty riders consider a biking class or lesson on bike safety, before joining a bike-share program. “You may not forget how to ride a bike, but you could forget how to operate one,” says Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists.

Reducing accidents can put the focus on the health benefits of bicycle riding — a major reason for why the bike-sharing programs have cropped up. According to the County Health Rankings, developed by the University of Wisconsin and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, NYC already has a lower obesity rate than the rest of New York and the nation. Adding a bike-share program could help residents become even more physically fit.

Recommended Reading Bonus: A new article from The Atlantic Cities finds that bike ridership in the U.S. is undeniably up across the country.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.