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Safety fears on UK roads mean older cyclists are missing out on health benefits

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A study involving academics from the University of Reading has shown that cycling has the potential to support older adults to age more ‘actively’, but many do not feel safe on UK roads.

The cycleBOOM study, led by Oxford Brookes University, involved 240 participants aged 50-plus from Reading, Oxford, Bristol and Cardiff. These were a mix of non-cyclists, current cyclists and also a group of older cyclists who wished to re-engage with cycling after a break.

Participants took part in an interview and tests at University of Reading to measure their memory, attention and speed of thinking, before cycling for at least half an hour, three times a week and then conducting the same tests again eight weeks later. The results suggest cycling on both standard bikes and electric bikes can help improve brain performance among the older population.

Researchers also shadowed riders as they cycled a route from the University to the centre of Reading and spoke to participants afterwards about their experiences.

The findings show that UK towns and cities are often not supportive of riders’ needs. Even more ‘resilient’ cyclists described using coping strategies such as timing journeys to avoid peak periods, dismounting at particularly challenging junctions or even riding on the pavement.

Cycling in the UK accounts for only 1% of all journeys among those aged 65 and older, compared to 23% in the Netherlands, 15% in Denmark and 9% in Germany. This indicates there is potential to increase cycling rates among older adults in the UK.

Encouraging cycling could help to address a range of issues associated with an ageing population including increasing levels of physical activity and tackling social isolation and loneliness.

Dr Emma Street, Associate Professor in Planning and Urban Governance at the University of Reading, said: “One of the aims of the cycleBOOM study was to understand what changes in policy are needed to encourage more older adults to cycle. We reviewed policies in a range of fields including health, transport, urban design and planning.

“We found that while many policy-makers are looking at ways to increase cycling, older adults are typically missing from these conversations. Often it is assumed that older adults are incapable of cycling or that they do not wish to cycle.

“Our research shows that many older adults continue to enjoy cycling, even when urban infrastructure is unsupportive of their needs. We think that initiatives like the World Health Organisation’s Network of Age-friendly Cities and Communities that aims to create inclusive and accessible urban environments to benefit ageing populations are key to sustaining cycling into older age and encouraging people who may stopped to reconnect with cycling.

“This is about is about making places more accessible for everyone. Ensuring that cycling appeals to a wider section of the population than is currently the case is part of this.”

A series of recommendations based on the findings was presented this week to advise policy makers, planners, engineers and designers, health promoters and the cycle industry, on how they could support all cyclists, through initiatives such as slower speed zones and providing electric bikes.

In Reading, cycling accounts for around 6% of all journeys made. Reading Borough Council has been accepted onto the EMPOWER EU Project as a ‘Take Up City’ which includes an award of €100,000 to incentivise cycling in Reading and persuade people to make modest shifts in their transport choices.