Cycling Proponents Peddle Health Savings

SFU’s Dr. Meghan Winters found $54 to $200 million in healthcare savings in a 2012 study conducted for Toronto Public Health

Health officers, planners and city officials gather to discuss the health benefits of cycling and their economic impact

Planners and decision-makers seeking to replace partisan screaming matches over city cycling with data-driven conversations should embrace economic assessment tools, an SFU epidemiologist told the second Metro Vancouver Cycling Action Forum, a half-day event held Wednesday afternoon at TransLink’s new headquarters near Sapperton SkyTrain Station in New Westminster.
The forum heard that studies suggesting cycling saves more lives as a result of increased physical activity than it ends—via increased traffic crashes—have been around since the early 1990s, that more recent European research has measured financial pros and cons, and that the World Health Organization has created a free online assessment tool planners can use alongside traffic counts and injury data to estimate the economic impact of cycling in their jurisdictions.
When Dr. Meghan Winters, assistant professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University, used the tool to crunch some numbers for Toronto Public Health last year, she found that city’s cycling levels prevented 49 deaths per year, representing between $54 and $200 million in health care benefits.
“Cycling is worth investing in,” she said. “It’s very clear the health benefits of cycling far outweigh the risks.”
According to Winters, one of the reasons city cycling progress has been slow across our province—with the possible exception of Vancouver—is incomplete accounting: health and transportation are separate entities with separate budgets and little cross-communication.
Attendee Dr. Helena Swinkels, medical health officer at the Fraser Health Authority, agreed ramping up cycling could help achieve public health goals. “Everyone here is a leader in promoting health if they are promoting cycling,” she said. “We really need to be normalizing cycling.”
TransLink senior transportation planner Kamala Rao told the room more investment was crucial for momentum to pick up. “We’re not investing as much as we need to be in cycling infrastructure and promotion and education, despite the fact that it would save us billions of dollars,” she said.
The only opposing voice briefly jarring the forum came via social media, when news broke on someone’s Twitter feed a new civic party in Vancouver was promising fewer bike lanes if elected, an idea met with boos around the room.
North Vancouver Mayor Darrell Mussatto applauded his neighbours across Burrard Inlet for sticking with building bike lanes; he felt the strategy could make cycling safer and more popular, while lowering road congestion and health care costs.
“People want safe cycling routes,” he said.  “It’s costing us more money to retrofit, but I think it’s worth it in the long run.”