In the latest government report on the UK’s health, Chief Medical Officer Professor Sally Davies sounds the alarm about being overweight becoming normal, and calls for more to be done to make active travel - walking and cycling - even safer.
Part of the answer to the epidemic of obesity is to get people to travel more on foot and by bike, she says.
“I believe that encouraging more people to engage in active travel, such as walking and cycling, is crucial to improving the health of the nation and reducing the prevalence of obesity.”
However, there’s a problem: the public perceives cycling as dangerous. Despite cycling deaths regularly making the news, Professor Davies says: “Cycling is usually a safe and healthy thing to do but the benefits of cycling don’t make the headlines”.
The report summarises the relative risks of different modes of travel, pointing out that for each kilometre travelled, the risk of serious injury is 21 times higher on a bicycle than by car.
The report points out that such simple comparisons can be misleading because, for example, cars can carry passengers which makes them look safer per person-journey. Cars also cover substantial distances on motorways and dual carriageway A roads, which have an extremely good safety record because they’re designed to keep vehicles apart.
Professor Davies says: “In order to improve uptake, we need to improve safety. The relative risk associated with journeys by active travel methods are unacceptably high and must be reduced.“
Despite the risks, the health benefits of cycling are overwhelming, she says. “Research strongly suggests that the health benefits associated with switching from travelling by car to cycling outweigh the risks. Research suggests that the overall health benefits of cycling are 7 times greater than the risks.”
The answer, says Professor Davies, is to make sure that all forms of active travel are considered when infrastructure is modified.
She says: “For example, research suggests that some pedestrians fear collisions with cyclists, and some report feeling “terrorised” by cyclists. This fear may be an unintended consequence of frequently colocating cyclist traffic and much slower pedestrian traffic.”
In other words, as demonstrated by the frequent issues that crop up around probably the UK’s busiest shared-use route, the Bristol-Bath Railway Path, forcing cyclists and pedestrians to share transport space is a bad idea.
British Cycling says the report provides strong support for its 10 point #ChooseCycling plan.
British Cycling's campaigns manager, Martin Key said: “Today’s report by the chief medical officer highlights the vital need for cycling to be prioritised as a form of transport. From our research we know that almost two thirds people would travel more by bike if cycling was accommodated in road design.
“As this report makes clear, the health benefits of cycling through improved fitness outweigh the risks by 700%. To overcome this we need to transform our towns into people friendly places with safe, separated bike lanes which link people to the places they want to go.
"Cities like Cambridge, where almost a third of people cycle to work, are real life examples of how cycling can be made safer as well as a viable, attractive alternative to driving.
“Politicians and local leaders need to listen carefully to this advice. Research we commissioned from Cambridge University has shown that even a modest increase in trips made by bike would save the NHS in excess of £2.5 billion over the next decade. The way forward is clear: we just have to choose cycling.”
Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.
Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.
Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.
The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.