Beyond Equity — A Strategy for Developing Critical Leadership in Transportation

Bike Share is a Boon for Public Health

by Kiran Herbert, Local Programs Writer and Content Manager

A new study out of Colorado State University has found that, on average, bike share systems are saving the U.S. healthcare system more than $36 million a year.

A woman rides using Indego bike share in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo credit: Jasmin Alston Photography)

 

In the United States in 2019, there were 136 million trips taken on shared bikes, e-bikes, and scooters, resulting in an estimated 30 million hours of additional physical activity and averting 65 million pounds of CO₂ emissions. Based on these stats, it seems like a safe enough bet to assume that bike share is a great thing for public health. Until last month, however, there was no research to back up that assertion.

In the first study of its kind, David Rojas-Rueda and Raeven Lynn M. Clockston, epidemiological researchers at Colorado State University, have found that bike-sharing trips in the U.S. provide health benefits for bicyclists and that those health benefits are greater than the risks, such as air pollution or injury from cars. Additionally, the authors estimated that U.S. bike share trips resulted in an annual reduction of 4.7 premature deaths and 737 disability-adjusted life years, or years spent living with a health condition such as heart disease, cancer or diabetes. Importantly, the study also found that bike share saves the U.S. $36 million in public health dollars every year.

“The main takeaway is that bike sharing systems are a really good tool for health promotion and prevention,” says Rojas-Rueda. “[Bike share] is a public health tool that urban transportation planners can use to help their communities.”

The researchers found that bike share users have a much lower risk of dying from diseases related to physical inactivity, although they have a marginally higher risk of dying in traffic crashes or from pollution-related ailments compared to those that take transit or drive. And while slightly higher, those risks are still incredibly small: From 2007 to 2014, not a single person died using bike share and bike share users tend to get in fewer crashes than other bicyclists.

“When we compare the risks and the benefits of physical activity, the benefits outweigh the risk,” says Rojas-Rueda. “It is worth it to actually jump on a bicycle in urban areas in the U.S. when you come from your car, or even if you walk or use public transportation. There’s a benefit in all these cases.”

There are 72 bike-sharing systems in the U.S. that include approximately 100,000 bikes, amounting to roughly 109,589 trips per day. Working off of bike share usage data from NACTO and NABSA, researchers followed a quantitative health impact assessment approach, quantifying the health impacts of physical activity, air pollution and traffic incidents. Input data on transport, traffic safety, air quality and physical activity were collated from public records and scientific publications. This study modeled a similar 2018 study of 12 major bike share systems in Europe, except researchers didn’t have access to the cost of diseases in Europe and thus, couldn’t put a number on the overall public health savings.

Citi Bike in New York City not only has some of the best data available, but it’s also the largest bike share system in the nation with 19,000 bikes and some 57,000 trips per day. In this study, Citi Bike use accounts for more than 40% of the savings identified, or around $15 million. Furthermore, researchers estimate that a shift of 100,000 New Yorkers to bike share from other modes would result in an annual reduction of 15 deaths, 2556 disability adjusted life years and more than $111 million public health dollars spent annually.

“This study gives a sense of, in the specific context of the U.S., what the magnitude of bike share’s health impact is,” says Rojas-Rueda. “If you maintain or increase a system, you will maintain or increase the benefits but if you reduce or eliminate the system in your city, you will lose those benefits.”

The study’s findings are timely, as bike share systems are disappearing in some cities or, commonly, not receiving the sort of financial investment the public health savings suggest they deserve. And Rojas-Rueda is clear that, if cities were to invest in bicycle infrastructure and community outreach around bike share, the benefits would be even greater. Promoting Vision Zero and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions would also go a long way in mitigating some of the remaining risks of bike share.

Going forward, Rojas-Rueda emphasizes that additional research is needed regarding more vulnerable populations, ensuring we’re providing the service of bike share to those that need it the most. Increasingly, cities are providing adaptive bikes for those with disabilities and even considering children but there’s a lot of room for improvement when it comes to creating more equitable systems. 

Overall, the study supports the implementation and expansion of bike share systems across the U.S. and should be a powerful tool in any city planner’s data arsenal. Likewise, the study showcases how the fields of mobility and public health are inextricably linked, underscoring the need for public health practitioners to take a more active stance in advocating for better urban and transportation planning. 

“I’m very glad to see that there is a lot of progress and we are going in the right direction but my perception is that we are not going very fast,” says Rojas-Rueda. “We need to really improve the infrastructure for cyclists—drawing a line in the streets and calling it a bike lane is probably not the best way. We need to invest in infrastructure that will attract children, the elderly and women. If they feel kind of comfortable [using bike share], everyone will.”


The Better Bike Share Partnership is funded by The JPB Foundation as a collaboration between the City of Philadelphia, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and the PeopleForBikes Foundation to build equitable and replicable bike share systems. Follow us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram or sign up for our weekly newsletter. Got a question or a story idea? Email kiran@peopleforbikes.org