A study published in the scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives shows that swapping your car for short trips and replacing them with mass transit and active transport provides major health benefits. The study will be presented to the American Public Health Association in Washington, D.C. $3.8 billion per year are saved in avoided mortality and reduced health care costs for obesity and heart disease by replacing half of the short journeys with bicycle trips during the warmest six months of the year.

The researchers calculated that an estimated $7 billion including 1,100 lives from improved air quality and increased physical fitness can be saved each year by applying these measures.

Jonathan Patz, director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison says that changing from cars to bicycles for five-mile trips is a win-win situation. He adds: “We talk about the cost of changing energy systems, the cost of alternative fuels, but we seldom talk about this kind of benefit.”

Researchers first identified the reduction of air pollution that could be achieved from eliminating short car trips in 11 metropolitan statistical areas in the upper Midwest.

The study of the largest 11 metropolitan statistical areas in the upper Midwest began by identifying the air pollution reductions that would result from eliminating the short auto trips.

Co-author Scott Spak, previously working on the study at US-Madison and now at the University of Iowa, said that a small average reduction in very fine particles that lodge deep within the lung and have repeatedly been associated with asthma and deaths caused by cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases was a major source of health benefits. In the U.S., 8.2% of the population suffers from asthma. Spak added: “The reductions tend to be much larger during high pollution episodes, and even small changes reduce a chronic exposure that affects the 31.3 million people living throughout the region – not just in these metropolitan areas, but even hundreds of miles downwind.”

The projected prognosis of the study showed that 433 lives could be saved due to the reduction in fine particles.

In the next step researchers assessed the health benefits of using a bicycle on short trips during the most feasible six months for cycling with optimum weather.

Leading author Maggie Grabow, a Ph.D. candidate at UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute, who will also present the study to the American Public Health Association in Washington, D.C. states:

“Obesity has become a national epidemic, and not getting exercise has lot to do with that. The majority of Americans do not get the recommended minimum level of exercise. In a busy daily schedule, if that exercise can automatically occur while commuting to work, we anticipate a major benefit in stemming the obesity epidemic, and consequently a significant reduction in type II diabetes, which is a deadly epidemic in its own right.”

Patz, an environmental health specialist in the Department of Population Health Sciences comments that overall, the study did not include the financial savings made due to the reduction in using cars and therefore benefits of eliminating short car journeys could be underestimated. Neither did the study attempt to account for the health benefits of the ‘saved’ car journeys that would be replaced by walking or using public transport, both of which provide an additional amount of exercise.

Although Patz acknowledges that eliminating all short car journeys is unrealistic, he says that riding bikes as a method of transport is gaining popularity in the U.S., and points out that about 50% of short trips are made cycling in some Northern European cities asking, “If they have achieved this, why should we not think we can achieve it too?”

He states that in the last few years Chicago and New York as well as other cities have injected substantial resources into the bicycle infrastructure adding that this new study should further motivate other cities to make their surroundings more bicycle-friendly by providing better parking opportunities, fit bike racks on buses and trains and build more bicycle lanes and in particular separate bicycle paths. He says: “Part of this is a call for making our biking infrastructure safer. If there are so many health benefits out there, we ought to try to redesign our cities to achieve them without putting new riders at risk.”

A reduction in the use of fossil fuels also includes reducing car usage, both of which benefit the climate, says Patz, adding:

“Transportation accounts for one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, so if we can swap bikes for cars, we gain in fitness, local air quality, a reduction in greenhouse gases, and the personal economic benefits of biking rather than driving. It’s a four-way win.”

Written by Petra Rattue