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Does professional cycling symbolize a potential climate action strategy?

Written by Theo Hanson, MD and MPH candidate, University College Dublin and Flinders University, Australia, and 2022 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program participant

London bike path promoting cycling as a form of transport

On July 12, the Tour de France was brought to a literal standstill by environmental activists. To raise awareness about climate change, the Dernière Rénovation group delayed the world’s most watched annual sporting event by 15 minutes. Yet as I watched the worlds of professional sport and environmental activism collide, I wondered if a potential answer lay in the intertwining of physical activity and climate action.

Since the industrial revolution, human activity has been the predominant driver of climate change. Greenhouse gas emission, the release of methane from waste and agriculture, and deforestation are examples of how humans are driving global warming. Moreover, the effects of our impact are being felt around the world like never before. Heatwaves in Europe, flooding in Australia, and wildfires in North America are making climate change more apparent than ever.

As Earth continues to experience the destruction of climate change, finding strategies to mitigate humanity’s effect on the environment is increasing in importance. Sustainable Urban Development, which involves creating walking and cycle paths in urban areas, disincentivising motor vehicle use, and increasing access to public transport and green spaces, is one such strategy.

On June 23, Deborah Salvo, PhD, gave a presentation on Sustainable Urban Development to the Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program – Public & Global Health Track at WashU. Salvo explained how modelling from her research has shown that improvements to walking and cycling infrastructure, increasing public recreational spaces as well as improving access to public transport can lead to decreased CO2 emission, fine particulate matter concentrations, road traffic deaths, and increased physical activity. The dual-pronged nature of Sustainable Urban Development, where benefits are seen both in environmental sustainability and individual health behavior is why I believe this climate action strategy is particularly advantageous.

Environmental action undoubtedly requires a multidimensional approach and Sustainable Urban Development is just one strategy to tackle this issue. However, as a cyclist, I am particularly aware of how access to cycling and walking paths, recreational facilities, and green spaces promotes healthy behaviors in individuals. Now, through Salvo’s work, we also know of the environmental benefits of modifying our city spaces. During the Dernière Rénovation’s protest at the Tour de France, I could not help but think of the link between cycling and the climate action strategy of Sustainable Urban Development. Perhaps these two groups are more aligned than they might realize.