New Study Reveals Why Biking Is a Healthy Form of Transportation

Bike commuters in seven major European cities reported higher levels of self-perceived health and lower levels of stress—all thanks to spinning their pedals on a regular basis.

Is there something about riding your bike that makes you feel better? Well, it turns out science may validate your experience. An article recently published in Environmental International suggests that those who use a bicycle as a form of transportation may maintain higher levels of self-perceived health than drivers, walkers and public transportation users and also experience lower levels of stress.

The article, titled “The Effects of Transport Mode,” is part of a four-year study that aimed to evaluate the relation between transportation modes and a series of health and social contact indicators. The indicators included self-perceived health and stress, energy levels, loneliness, and regular contact with friends and family. (Self-perceived health and stress were based on a specific format that asked participants questions like: “In general, how would you say your health is?” Multiple choice answers included a range from “excellent” to “poor.”) The study was compiled in conjunction with university professors, research institutions and transportation organizations throughout Europe from 2014 to 2017, and polled 8,800 adult participants in seven European cities: Antwerp, Belgium; Barcelona, Spain; London; Orebro, Sweden; Rome; Vienna; Zurich. The study is one of the most extensive studies of its kind to date and aims “to promote active transport.”

“To design cities able to produce health and well-being outcomes, it has been suggested that transport planning should assume a major role,” according to the study, which collected data from two online surveys canvasing socio-demographics, travel behavior, and selected health measures. “Transport is associated with economic and social development, but also with different health risks and benefits.”

Here are a few of the study’s main takeaways.

Less Stress, More Energy

One of the study’s main takeaways was that, in general, bicyclists were more positive, healthy, and energized than their transportation peers. The study suggests that this may be due to a variety of factors, but says that biking can provide feelings of independence and may be more pleasant and relaxing than driving in a car or changing metro lines.

In contrast, participants who said they drove a car reported a lower amount of energy and higher overall stress, which was attributed to the car drivers having to deal with traffic, air pollution exposure and noise.

“We know from cars that there is a staggering amount of stress,” said Dr. Anne Lusk, a Harvard University research scientist specializing in bicycle transportation and infrastructure. “There’s studies on road rage. We haven’t seen studies talking about bicycle rage or walking rage.”

Engagement and Community

The study also points to the fact that biking may change the way we experience our daily trips. By nature, biking forces us to slow down and interact with our surroundings in a different way—something that can be relaxing, exciting and generally more fulfilling. In other words, bikers and bike commuters have to be engaged with the world around them, but can enjoy a little more of the commute than those buzzing in and out of traffic—a positivity reflected in the low stress levels and high mental health coefficient recorded by bicyclists in the study.

But biking benefits don’t seem to stop at personal satisfaction. The bikers in the study were also less likely to suffer from loneliness. Lusk credits this to biking’s many “social bridges”—elements that enable a positive interaction with a stranger, such as a bike rack, a bike lane, or even a bike itself that can inspire an interaction or conversation.

She added that this type of interaction should be at the top of the list for planners building future bicycling infrastructure in cities and beyond.

“We need to design guidelines for bicycling that take into consideration the human being,” she said. “Loneliness and designing an end to loneliness is not going to come from an engineering guideline.”

A European Advantage

While Lusk was quick to agree that the study results are, on the surface, very positive momentum for bicycling and active transportation, she noted that the results were likely influenced by the existing bike infrastructure in many European cities. For example, cities like Barcelona, Antwerp and Vienna have well-established bike-lane networks and areas where bicyclists are not only protected from traffic but can also ride side by side. On the other hand, she said that biking in some U.S. cities requires a constant state of vigilance.

“Biking has become this kind of lone warrior activity because you have to bike in traffic and it’s highly stressful,” she said. “In the U.S. you have to command a lane, where in a place like the Netherlands it is way calmer–senior citizen biking next to senior citizen, families biking together.”

Projects like the East Coast Greenway—a trail-building project currently underway to connect 15 states and 3,000 miles of bicycle and walking trail from Maine to Florida—are starting to pop up around the U.S., but the movement still lags behind much of Europe.

With the concerns of Lusk and other bicycle infrastructure experts in mind, the study states that its findings are meant to fuel a bicycle-centric focus for future urban and suburban development.  

“An integrated management of urban design, transport planning, and public health is needed to develop policies to promote active transport,” the report concludes. “Transport is not only about moving, but also about public health and a population’s well-being.”