A new report concludes that health impacts can only be generated from the 19% of the population who might take up cycling and who are currently not getting enough exercise to benefit their health. The remaining 81% either are already physically active enough, or say they would never take up cycling.
Promotional interventions need to be carefully targeted to have greatest effect
Promotional interventions need to be carefully targeted to have greatest effect

Although the Cycling Cities and Towns programme ended in 2011, research into its impact is only just beginning. Since most of the economic justification for promoting cycling comes from the associated health benefits of getting sedentary people cycling [1], the thrust of this new report [2] is that programmes will only be successful if interventions to increase cycling are aimed at the physically inactive.

Survey data from the 18 towns found that 60% of the population were not getting enough exercise to benefit their health - similar to figures found in the wider population. If all of those became more active 918 lives would be saved each year – a huge health benefit, and, with lives valued at around £1.6m each, a colossal potential economic benefit.

That’s the good news.

Unfortunately, the surveys of the towns also asked how likely people would be to take up cycling, and two thirds of the inactive population were deemed to have virtually no chance of becoming a cyclist in the future. Most said they had some sort of disability, didn't own a bike, or never rode one as a child.

Furthermore, getting the other 40% of people who are already active to take up or do more cycling will make no difference to health. The health benefits of exercise are subject to diminishing marginal returns; in other words getting someone to go on a leisure cycling trip won’t improve public health if they are already a superfit gym bunny.

The report argues that if we want to gain those health and economic benefits we need to tailor  interventions to target the particular groups of people with low levels of physical activity but high probability of taking up cycling.

The authors haven’t outlined exactly which interventions are most effective or even how best we identify the 19% who are unfit but prepared to cycle. Clearly better environmental conditions - quality cycle facilities and reduced motor traffic - are key to getting people cycling, but this report was focused on the softer measures that are also needed to persuade people to take up cycling.

One intervention which they said seems to have an effect is cycle training [3]: of those positive about cycling most had received some cycle training as a child, whereas those who hadn’t done any child cycle training are unlikely to consider taking up cycling as an adult.

This sounds like common sense: if you don’t learn to ride a bike as a child your chances of becoming a keen cyclist as an adult are massively reduced. Unfortunately, we still aren’t able to get full coverage of cycle training in schools: just over 50% of children [4] received centrally funded Bikeability cycle training in 2009/10. This means that the other half - many of whom won’t be receiving any cycle training at all - are already a step behind when it comes to becoming a regular adult cyclist.

All the health and environmental benefits which justify investment in cycling come from shifting adults from car driving to cycling, so investment in child cycle training rests on those children becoming adult cyclists in later life.