Bikes have transformed urban landscapes throughout America, from pavement markings on streets to our workday gear, and most of us agree it's a good thing. They've reduced the pollution we send into the ozone layer, helped us conserve gas and oil and kept us fitter than we might otherwise be.
But there's also been a downside to all that cycling: more injuries. And those injuries are costing billions of dollars a year.
A study published this week in the journal Injury Prevention estimates that from 1997 to 2013, the medical costs for nonfatal crashes involving adults increased by an average of $789 million each year. In 2013 alone, total costs were $24.4 billion — about double the amount for all occupational illnesses, the researchers wrote.
The numbers cover emergency transport, hospital charges, rehabilitation, nursing home stays, the cost of lost work and quality of life, among other things.
The rising costs can be partially explained by how bike crashes have changed in recent years, according to Thomas W. Gaither, a University of California at San Francisco medical student who was one of the study's authors. In the past, there were many “non-street” incidents, but these days most involving adults are crashes with motor vehicles.
In 1997, 46 percent of injuries occurred on a street, while in 2014, nearly 67 percent did.
This increases “the velocity of the crash impact and, as a result, the severity of the injury,” Gaither explained. He and the other researchers also suggested that “streets might also predispose to more injuries due to the coexisting environment with urban areas, increased population density or the presence of more unyielding street furniture” (meaning things such as telephone polls, fire hydrants, parking meters and the like).
One other striking point has to do with the changes in rider demographics. “Costs associated with cycling coincide with a rising exposure trend in both older adults and men,” the researchers wrote. The number of bicycle miles traveled annually by people 45 and older went from 1.9 trillion in 2001 to 3.6 trillion in 2009.
In 1997, 26 percent of medical costs were due to riders 45 and older; by 2013, that had grown to 54 percent. Men continued to make up the bulk of the injured, with 77 percent of costs in 2013 due to male riders.
Despite the bad news about the medical and cost consequences, the researchers said they still thought cycling's health benefits outweighed the risks. But the study findings show that there should be a policy focus on injury prevention, they concluded, adding that better design of roadway infrastructure and even of bikes and cars might be in order.