Cycling as a lifelong physical activity: Lessons learned from Europe
Holy Spirit College, Bellambi, Wollongong
Age is no barrier to cycling. Den Haag, Netherlands. Photo: D. Brown
Today, governments over the world have recognised that physical activity plays a vital role in the promotion and maintenance of health, longevity and lower morbidity for individuals and populations. It is now clear that regular physical activity can reduce the significance and impact of diseases such as chronic heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, obesity, and depression.1
Disturbingly, evidence now suggests that low physical activity levels have contributed to the epidemic of childhood obesity2 that is increasing in Australia and is expected to have a long-term negative impact on population health.3 As recently stated by the US Surgeon General,4 diseases of inactivity, such as obesity, are second only to smoking as the key public health issue facing government in the United States.
In New South Wales, the government has started to tackle the issue of childhood obesity through initiatives such as the ‘healthy school canteen’, where stricter guidelines must be followed in the preparation and sale of foodstuffs to school children. While this is a step in the right direction, recent research has demonstrated that increases in obesity are also attributed to a decline in physical activity levels rather than to merely an increase in caloric intake.5 Alarmingly, levels of physical activity among children are declining, while the incidence of sedentary activities, such as watching television or playing video games, is increasing. Thus, an effective program against childhood obesity would benefit from programs to raise physical activity levels in all school-age children. Establishing a habit of physical activity early in life is important, as evidence suggests that people who start physical activity early in life tend to continue it later into adulthood.6 From a population health perspective, this is important, since physical activity delays the functional decline and the onset of chronic diseases that are typical of ageing,7 such as osteoporosis, and helps to maintain function while preventing costly falls and fatal hip fractures.8
In children, physical activity levels may be improved if programs are adopted to increase energy expenditure through the adoption of active means of transport to and from schools.9 For example, walking and cycling are two forms of physical activity that appear suitable for any active transport initiative as they also provide very accessible modes of transport for all ages, genders and socioeconomic groups. Cycling, in particular, has added health benefits since its higher intensity of effort through more strenuous use of the large skeletal muscles of the body is better suited to burn calories, reduce fat, increase muscle and improve physical fitness.10
The bike park at the Central Station, Den Haag, Netherlands. Photo: D.Brown
Many European cities have dedicated cycleways and other facilities to improve safety and utility. Photo: J. Pucher
Both cycling and walking are common, and often preferred methods of active transport in European towns and cities, which also report lower incidences of obesity when compared to Australia and the United States.11 Cycling mileage in the European Union was estimated at 70 billion km/year, with the greatest regular cycling participation coming from Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands.12 Children from as young as a few weeks old can often be seen transported around in special buggies attached to bicycles, while toddlers scooter themselves along on bikes without pedals. Primary school students use training wheels or bikes attached to an adult frame, while secondary school students, adults and the elderly ride a variety of bikes with accessories that provide functionality for transporting goods such as school supplies, groceries, and pets. Clearly, the European experience of utilising cycling and walking for active transport may provide us with critical insights into increasing physical activity levels in Australian children and adults.
Focus of the study
The focus of this study was to explore what lessons could be learnt from the European experience of active transport to help promote physical activity within schools and the general population. Of particular importance was understanding why cycling rates within Europe were greater than in Australia, and how a culture of ‘active transport’ could be encouraged in Australian school children through curriculum initiatives.
Europeans have higher levels of physical activity when compared to Australians, which is attributed to their acceptance of active transport modes such as cycling and walking. From direct observation, many factors appear to have a role in the higher rates of walking and cycling, many of which could also be used to raise the levels of cycling as a lifelong physical activity in Australia.
Many European cities and towns have developed, and are continuing to develop, physical infrastructures to promote and enhance safe cycling. Examples of these facilities include:
Dedicated cycle paths;
Integrated transport systems (cycleways, buses, trains, ferries);
Roads with physical and visual separations between cyclists and motor traffic;
Well-lit roads and cycle paths;
Painted paths for cyclists at road junctions;
Dedicated cyclist traffic lights;
Advanced cyclist stop lines to allow cyclists to be in full view at traffic lights;
Cycle lanes with car parking restrictions;
Wide cycle lanes to avoid open car door accidents;
Pedestrian malls and car-free zones;
Shopping villages within cycling distance of new unit and housing developments;
Cycle networks linking residential areas to schools, shops, and sporting venues;
Undercover storage facilities and convenient cycle racks near public transport, shops, schools and work areas.
Policies and regulations
The policies and regulations developed in many European towns and cities have as their focus, the promotion of active transport and the safety of all road users. These policies have been driven by increasing health issues such as obesity, noise and air pollution as well as reduced physical activity levels of children. The European Union has developed publications, processes and incentives to make cycling safer, more accessible, more convenient and more pleasant. These include:
Traffic calming initiatives;
Traffic regulations that favour cyclists;
Police involvement in bicycle education and safety;
Company-sponsored employee bicycles;
Local council support for cycle-to-work programs and improved storage and safety;
Support for the carriage of cycles on public transport.
Education for children
School children in Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands participate in a compulsory road and cycle education program. During the early years, the focus is purely on pedestrian safety, safe usage of crossings, footpaths and junctions. By the age of 10 all students must sit a written and on-road test for bicycle use. In Germany this program is referred to as the Farrhad Pass, and it is conducted by a specific branch within the German Police Force who oversee all road and cycling safety for children. Further police contact with the children is then maintained until they complete Year 5/6, with many schools encouraging further on-road training and assessments. The program’s major focus is safe and defensive walking and cycling. Research into this education program proved its importance with respect to children’s road safety. During cutbacks to the program in the 1990s, accident rates involving children cycling rose alarmingly.
Children are also educated on road and cycling issues by their parents. As many parents and grandparents are regular cyclists, lessons are passed on from generation to generation. From surveys conducted, it is often the parents who have spent time teaching the skills of safe cycling
—balance, speed, coordination, turning and signalling—with the police programs enforcing the rules of the road.
In Scotland, Cycling Scotland has developed a resource to educate children on the safe and regular use of the bicycle as well as a training program for interested adults to become qualified to deliver these cycling programs. Similarly, Sustrans, a Bristol-based organisation responsible for developing a 10,000-mile cycling network throughout Great Britain, has contributed to the Safe Routes to School program. That program was designed to turn around the low cycling rates of UK school children (2%) more towards those seen in Denmark (60%). Remarkably, in just two years cycling rates in the pilot schools tripled, child pedestrian casualties fell 70 per cent, and cycling casualties fell by 28 per cent.
Education for adults
Education for adults to be safe road users is provided in several ways. The first is a greater emphasis being placed on the safety for pedestrians and cyclists within the motor vehicle licensing process. Heavy penalties also exist for the motorist if they have been in an accident with either a pedestrian or cyclist. This aims to increase motorist awareness of all road users. Specific programs are also running in Dutch communities that target bike education for adults and the elderly. These programs aim to assist the aging population to continue their cycling habits. The one-day courses encourage safe cycling, improve confidence and include basic medical checks as well as practical skills training.13
The introduction of the Velo-City conferences 25 years ago has also contributed to the promotion and education of the adult population on the significance of cycling in reducing world health issues. These conferences have not only grown in program length but also have had significant increases in the number of countries represented and the total number of delegates. The first conference had 310 delegates representing 9 countries, while the latest conference in Dublin in 2005 was attended by twice as many delegates from over 30 different countries. Attended by regular cyclists, educationalists, health officials, manufacturers and individuals from the transport sector and government agencies, this conference provided a real multi-sectorial approach to the using the bicycle to promote future health and wellbeing.
Culture can be defined as the system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviours, and artefacts that the members of society use to cope with their world and with one another, and that are transmitted from generation to generation through learning.14 Based on this definition, it can be said that cycling is cultural in many European cities and towns. Children ride to schools, adults ride to work and the elderly ride to their local shops. Motor vehicle users have a greater respect for the cyclist, families place greater importance on the use of the bike as a form of transport, and many European governments place value on the use of the bicycle for sustainable transport and health improvements. The use of the bicycle among younger people in European towns and cities is not detracting from image but is recognised for its strengths in providing social independence, accessibility, and quick transport.
Bicycles and equipment:
Although bicycles can vary significantly in design and price, most children and adults choose to ride a bike that is practical and simple in design. In contrast to Australia, many bikes within towns with flat terrain have no gears, but are accessorised with kick stands, baskets, carry racks and lights. These accessories increase the functional nature of the bicycle to assist with transporting school materials and shopping. Most of the bicycles are European made, have high-quality frames, gears and brakes, and are considerably more expensive than the base bicycle one can purchase in Australia. Bicycles in Europe also have a wider variety of options, including carriages for babies, trolleys to cart children or heavy items, hook-ons for children to be attached to adult bikes, and bikes without pedals to promote the acquisition of balance.
Cycle shops are common in Europe and are far more prevalent than gaming shops. The services they provide include sales of whole bicycles and parts, accessories for function and safety, maintenance workshops and the sale of clothing. Many of the larger stores have an indoor cycle track where customers can try before they buy. Others provide large air pumps on the footpaths for passing cyclists to utilise.
Critical mass and cycling culture
Critical mass is a concept that has proved its significance both statistically and in practice. Research has shown that as cycling numbers increase, safety increases and the injury and fatality statistics decrease.15,16 Studies have been conducted across German cities and towns to determining cycling culture through assessing physical facilities and conducting surveys of cyclists’ opinions of the respect shown to them by motorists.17 Personal observation by the author of cycling in Hamburg, Dresden, Odense, Copenhagen, The Hague, and Dublin provided an instructive introduction to different cycling cultures. Odense, Copenhagen and The Hague were by far the easiest and safest of cities to cycle around with a small family. Well defined barriers, both physical and visual, certainly made the experience much more pleasurable and safe. Driver concern at crossings and junctions was also more noticeable within these cities. While Hamburg and Dresden had well-designed cycle lanes, many were blocked by parked cars, maintenance and road work crews or detours. Cycle networks were not as evident, making it difficult to transport a young family safely from point A to point B. Dublin’s city centre was the least developed as far as cycling facilities and culture were concerned, although improvements were being made in the suburbs. Painted cycle lanes and rule changes allowing the sharing of bus lanes were two significant improvements. These improvements, however, have a long way to go to reach the level of comfort, safety and pleasure of cycling experienced in Odense, Copenhagen and The Hague.
Cycling was demonstrably popular, regardless of cycling culture, in Hamburg, Odense, Copehagen, Dublin, The Hague, Amsterdam and Dresden—all cities with level, or near level, topography. In contrast, cycling was practically non-existent in Luxembourg. Unlike the other cities visited for this study, the city of Luxembourg has been built on top of deep ravines, which historically have aided the defence of the city. Its terrain was often steep and difficult to traverse, even for motorised transport. Clearly, the steep hills and cliffs of this city have had a negative impact upon cycling rates. With regard to Australia, it could be suggested that efforts to improve cycling infrastructure and to promote cycling as active transport might find better success in those cities and suburbs with more favourable terrains.
A typical flat terrain encountered in most cities where cycling is popular. Note the two cycleways clearly marked on both sides of the road in this characteristic Dutch street. Photo: D.Brown
The weather did not appear to impact on the popularity of cycling to any great extent. Children were still cycling to school during winter snow, summer heat, rain and lack of sunlight. The elderly, too, were still noticeable on their bicycles during the various weather patterns. During strong winds and very deep falls of snow, however, there appeared to be fewer cyclists (and for that matter people in general) out and about. However, many Europeans believe that there is no such thing as bad weather … just bad clothing!
Cycling as active transport is extremely relevant to the current NSW K–6 and 7–10 Personal Development, Health and Physical Education (PDHPE) Syllabi, and the newly developed Physical Activity and Sports Studies Syllabus. In the area of lifelong physical activity, the use of cycling as the medium is very relevant. As observed in European culture, cycling as an activity is not inhibited by the same age barriers as many other activities promoted through the school PE programs. There are also significant links between cycling and road safety, thus an active medium can be utilised to educate a traditionally theoretical component of the syllabus. Current Roads and Traffic Authority resources can be implemented within a cycling framework. As the newly developed Physical Activity and Sports Studies Syllabus permits any movement context to educate students in the many focus areas of study, cycling is extremely applicable to this program of study.
The K–10 syllabi also require students to be informed and active decision-makers, and since cycling requires the use of many public facilities, students could be involved in hands-on decision-making and advocacy as they begin to identify future needs and resources for safer cycling. They could be empowered to lobby organisations and local and state governments for improved community and government support for improved local cycling environments and skills.
The links between cycling and other health-related issues such as healthy eating, avoiding obesity, fitness, mental wellbeing, and social interaction are significant and readily related to the K–10 PDHPE frameworks.
The European experience has confirmed that cycling can be a safe lifelong physical activity. However, for this to occur, several factors need to be addressed. Firstly there needs to be appropriate education, not just education for school students, but nationwide adult education on the significant health benefits of physical activity. Just as we have seen the benefits of a national anti-smoking campaign, Australia needs a national focus on cycling as a lifelong physical activity. If we are concerned about improving public health and the environment, we need to become serious about cycling as a lifelong physical activity and sustainable method of transport.
Secondly, there needs to be investment in cycling-related infrastructure. Cyclists need to feel safe and comfortable, and parents need to know that their children will be safe and comfortable. In Europe it has been seen that positive cycling environments promote safe and comfortable cycling and higher community acceptance and practice. When there are physical and visual barriers between cyclists and other high-speed road users, there is a higher rate of cycling. When there are facilities that will allow the cycling experience to be functional (for example, suitable storage areas, parking racks), there is more cycling.
Thirdly, there needs to be a paradigm shift—that the road is there for all to share and not merely a space for high-speed vehicles. The critical mass safety research has proven that the greater the number of cyclists, the safer the activity becomes. With increased cyclists come improved facilities, increased visual awareness by motorists, and, most importantly, fewer motorists. Importantly, from an educational perspective, exposure to the actual environments where children are expected to ride (for example, the roads) is perhaps a vital experience not yet addressed within Australia.
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