The freezing, windswept roads of Iceland don’t sound like the best place for avid cyclists. Morten Lange, head of the Icelandic Cyclists’ Federation in an interview with the editor of the Allianz Knowledge Partnership, disagrees, arguing that cycling could save your life.
“There is virtually no difference between the danger in cycling and going by car.” – Morten Lange, Director, Icelandic Cycling Foundation
Reporter: Thilo Kunzemann, Editor, Allianz Knowledge Partnership
Isn’t it difficult to convince people to cycle in a country with so much rain and cold?
People talk about the difficult weather, the distances, and so on. But even though there are some problems, there are so many positive things people don’t realize about cycling, like saving money, saving time, more freedom and substantial health benefits. There are many myths about cycling that aren’t true anymore.
Number 1: Let us go through these myths: Firstly, cycling is hard work. How would you tackle this statement?
This can be true when you start but most people will find that they gain strength when they have done it for some weeks. You can simply begin with a lighter gear and can have an enjoyable trip.
Number 2: The distance to my job is too far to cycle.
Many people think that five kilometers is very far. But when we ran our ‘cycle to work’ campaign here in Iceland, many people were surprised that it was no problem to cycle those five kilometers every day, and the time spent was less than they anticipated.
Number 3: Cycling is dangerous.
People often think that the traffic is intimidating and loud, and they have heard about accidents. But statistics that claim cycling is more dangerous than driving a car are looking at a per kilometer basis, which is not a fair comparison.
People will not go as far by bike as by car, so what you should compare is the danger on a per hour basis or per trip. And then there is virtually no difference between the danger in cycling and going by car. And of course cyclists pose much less danger to others. If cycling replaces car driving for short and medium distances, we get calmer traffic and we will all be safer.
Number 4: It takes too much time.
You are quicker on a bicycle than you think. In many cities around the world, there have been mock competitions during the rush hour between different modes of transport and it is very uncommon that the cyclist doesn’t win.
We did a contest here in Reykjavik in the morning rush hour, and the cyclist was substantially faster than the car driver and the person that went by bus.
How else do you convince people to cycle?
Parking in Iceland is mostly free, and this leads to many problems. Someone has to pay the costs of an under-priced service. So instead of paying to expand their parking lot, two companies in Reykjavik decided to reduce the demand for parking by offering people some money for not using the parking spaces.
They pay people the equivalent of a month’s pass on the bus. Everybody who doesn’t use the parking lot gets this payment, regardless of whether they walk, cycle, use public transport or get a lift with a co-worker.
We should follow the British example. Cycling England receives applications from schools to hold bikeability courses for their pupils to promote cycling and teach skills that improve safety. Children are taught how to cycle in “normal” traffic. They feel more confident and their parents are less afraid. Such lessons can be helpful even for seasoned adult cyclists.
What else would have to change so that cycling becomes more attractive?
I think we need a change in perspective and how politicians and public servants talk about traffic safety, health and cycling. The most visible message on cycling from many governments, insurance companies and NGO’s has been to stress that pedestrians and cyclists should lookout for cars and behave “responsibly”.
This often means fencing cyclists off from other traffic; make them wear bright clothes, high-visibility gadgets and helmets. This is all logical in a way, but it’s not the cyclist but speeding cars that are dangerous.
These negative messages also overshadow the positive message that cycling and walking is healthy, cost-effective, and fast. This should be changed; cars are the elephant in the china shop not the other way around.
If less people go by bike it generally means less safety for all cyclists, less physical activity and thus poorer public health, more pollution from cars. Politicians and public should rather promote cycling with positive means and introduce lower speed limits. 30 km/h should be the norm for cities and towns.
Now it’s hard to find a route that feels safe. Either you cycle on a busy freeway to work or you can use a map and explore your way. That way you probably end up with a route that is 30 percent longer than the routes cars use.
So you think that it is a question of public policy rather than being up to the individual?
Policy could help. Car users, for example, get many things for free; cyclists do not get similar favors. There are subsidies for driving, like free parking. Cyclists have seldom received subsidies. And for some people its part of their salary to get a car, it’s like a pay raise. If you’re using a bicycle, you don’t get such benefits. This is changing though, for instance in the UK, Norway, and indeed Iceland.
You mentioned the health benefits of cycling; does it really make such an impact?
The World Health Organization has published a tool called HEAT for Cycling that allows governments to assess the economic savings from cycling, savings resulting from reduced mortality or less obesity. It’s available on the web.
Various diseases like heart diseases and several types of cancer are less prevalent among those that cycle. In a study done in Denmark where 30,000 people were followed over 14 years, amongst those that cycled the chance of dying during that period was 30 percent lower than amongst those that did not cycle.
At least two towns, Odense in Denmark and Grimstad in Norway, have seen immediate savings in the health system, as a result of successful promotion of cycling lasting a few years.
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About this article:
Morten Lange: “The editor of this greenish website of the German insurance company Allianz, noticed some comments from me criticizing the safety messages on the site, as well as (via twitter) pointing out bicycling as a viable alternative when his article pointed out the many pitfalls of biological fuel replacements. He then contacted me via twitter and conducted the interview above by email. I am telling you this as an example of advocacy taking strange paths … and of course some of the ideas and knowledge I feel need more exposure, transpire in the interview.”
* This interview originally appeared in the Allianz Knowledge Partnership on 4 March.