Everyday cycling in Copenhagen: Danes cycling as a means to get places, not as an end in itself (source: The Times)

From time to time I write an article in which it’s necessary to refer to the considerable benefits that cycling for everyday transport provides for both the individual and the community.

More often than not, though, someone will point out on Twitter or in the Comments that I forgot to mention the value of cycling for addressing the obesity epidemic in Australia.

But it’s not an oversight; I deliberately omit any reference to reducing obesity from my list of potential benefits. This comment from a reader on BikePortland.org partly explains my reluctance:

I doubt there’s a fat girl alive who has any doubts about the desirability of being thin. I certainly don’t. Anyone who thinks obesity is encouraged or tolerated or celebrated has never been a fat girl.

But as someone who gets around exclusively by bike, I can tell you that the couple hundred calories burned in a short commute or a long errand-run will make approximately zero difference to my body size — and that’s the kind of bike riding I think cities are looking to encourage. Am I fitter than I was before I got on a bike at 55? Certainly. Am I thinner? Only by virtue of other efforts.

Obesity is a primarily a function of what’s eaten, not exercise; it’s not a winning way to promote cycling. But it’s not just obesity I’m reluctant to promote as a benefit; it’s cycling for fitness too.

One reason is the fitness benefit is routinely over-stated. It’s often assumed that cyclists wouldn’t have gotten exercise in some other way if they didn’t ride, perhaps by walking or jogging. That seems a big assumption given the relatively low age profile and health-conciousness of those Australians who currently cycle a lot.

This view also fails to recognise that the great majority of commuters who cycle at present would otherwise have taken public transport rather than drive. Many would’ve gotten regular exercise from walking to and from stops and stations.

Another reason is cycling requires less effort than walking the same distance; one estimate puts it at around a half. That’s not really remarkable – the whole point of a bicycle is to exploit mechanical advantage; it was invented to reduce the effort involved in travelling!

My main misgiving though is that I don’t think the whole health/fitness benefit “scales up” well. At present, cycling is seen in Australia largely as a way of getting exercise and I’ve no doubt it’s a key motivation of many regular cyclists.

That’s not the case in countries with very high levels of cycling. Travellers in places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen don’t wear special clothes when they cycle and don’t need showers at their destination, even in summer. That, I think, is because they cycle at a sedate pace over relatively short distances; they’re riding to get somewhere, not to get fit.

The whole health and fitness thing implies sweating, puffing, showering and wearing special clothes. Like the cyclist I quoted at the top – and these others who agreed with her – it might even be a turn-off to many prospective cyclists.

The next percentage point of mode share that cycling wins in Australian cities will probably include many new cyclists who’re motivated to a large degree by the exercise benefit. But as cycling grows further and pulls in new cohorts I think the whole health and exercise thing will be a much less important driver.

If it’s to dramatically increase its mode share in this country for everyday transport (e.g. by winning, say, a circa 5% mode share, same as trains), I expect cycling will have to attract travellers who choose it because it’s the best means of getting places, not as a means of exercise.

Of course cycling for transport unavoidably provides an incidental exercise benefit. Public transport does too, but it doesn’t factor into the mode choice decision of most users. Top of mind for them are issues like travel time, frequency, fares and security.

Promoting the fitness benefit of cycling runs the risk of typecasting cycling as hot and sweaty. I know some advocates who’re already uneasy about electric bicycles in large part because the exercise benefit is reduced; that’s unfortunate because the benefits of power-assisted cycling for the transport system are potentially considerable.

From a policy perspective, cycling offers such large prospective benefits to the community in other areas (e.g. traffic congestion) that I’m quite comfortable not mentioning the health and fitness stuff. The BikePortland commenter puts that at a personal level:

So sell me on sustainability, sell me on fun, sell me on freedom, sell me on the gleeful self-satisfaction of it all, but if you try to browbeat me with an obesity scare message that I’ve been browbeaten with all my life, all you do is subtract joy.