As New Yorkers settle back into work after the long weekend, they’ll be greeted by fleets of bright blue Citi Bikes that have sprung up seemingly over night — 6,000 bikes at 330 stations in this first phase of the bike share program. With more than 14,000 people signed up for annual memberships, it is off to a strong start. The program hopes to grow to over 10,000 bikes at 600 stations.
The bike share program has already generated a fair amount of controversy, however; Stephen Robert Morse argued that the program would bring “total carnage” because of the dangers of adding thousands more bikes to a city that is not known to be cyclist-friendly. London, a similarly sized city to NYC, has 17 cycling deaths a year with their own bike share program. New York is on track for 24 cycling deaths this year, even before Citi Bikes ramps up, which Morse contends will cause the number to rise even further.
What Morse ignores in his analysis of the Citi Bikes program is the growing scientific literature studying the actual net health benefits of bike share programs, which have rolled out to much fanfare but also much success in London, Chicago, Portland, Paris, and the Netherlands, among many other locales.
The NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Bureau of Chronic Disease Prevention and Control found that people who did not bike to work had a 39% higher mortality rate than those who commuted by cycling, even when controlling for other factors such as leisure time physical activity. As America continues to struggle with its obesity epidemic, it is also worth noting that NYCDHMH found that commuting to work via bike for 15 minutes each way five times a week can burn the equivalent of eleven pounds of fat annually.
No one is disputing the increased risk of road traffic accidents due to more bikers on the road, particularly if the riders are novices and the city is not particularly conducive to safe biking. A study on Barcelona'a public bicycle sharing initiative, however, found that the program actually resulted in 12.28 deaths avoided each year as the marginal increase in deaths from road traffic accidents were more than offset by the health benefits of increased physical activity (let alone the the health benefits from the air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions reductions also resulting from the program).
Another study on bike use in the Netherlands summarized a wide body of literature and evidence found that “the estimated health benefits of cycling were substantially larger than the risks relative to car driving for individuals shifting their mode of transport,” while another study in The Lancet on transportation in London and Delhi found that the health benefits from increased physical activity and the reduction in deaths from air pollution from active travel (biking and walking) more than offset the burden from increased road traffic injuries. In fact, active travel would save 7,332 disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs) in London and 12,516 in Delhi per million residents per year. The study also found that increased physical activity substantially reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease, depression, dementia, diabetes, breast cancer, and colon cancer.
While the literature suggests that Citi Bikes should have a net benefit on the health of New Yorkers, potentially even saving lives each year, there are still many things that the city can do to protect bikers as their numbers swell. NYC should focus on creating more protected bike lanes, such as Chicago has done and encouraging bikers to be a safe as possible while riding, particularly by wearing helmets, which are currently not required but “strongly encouraged” by Citi Bikes (although users that sign up for an annual membership get a $10 coupon for a helmet!). While there is still more to be done to encourage the safety of bikers, it looks like Citi Bikes could be a life-saver for New York riders.