The benefits of cycling to work

Newsletter articles

27 Sep 2016

Employment Studies Issue 24

Sam Swift, IES Research Officer

Sam SwiftIES was commissioned by Westminster Advisers, on behalf of the Cycle to Work Alliance, to assess the benefit of the Cycle to Work scheme for employers and society as a whole. Our research found significant effects on improving health, and quantified these econometrically to highlight the gains to be made from encouraging cycling uptake.

The study[1] focused on the Cycle to Work Scheme – a tax-free, salary sacrifice benefit under which employees can hire bicycles and cycling equipment – the benefits of this on the health of its participants, and the knock-on effect in terms of economic benefits for employers. IES undertook a wide-ranging literature review around cycling schemes and the benefits of cycling in general, and combined this with survey analysis. The analysis considered whether the Cycle to Work scheme had increased the number of people cycling, and whether people were cycling further or a greater proportion of journeys.

Effects of the scheme

With regards to cycling uptake, there is mixed evidence as to whether or not the scheme has had a significant positive uptake on cycling itself. National data does not suggest a rise in the proportion of the population cycling to work, which has remained steady at around 2.8 per cent since 2001. There was regional variation to this; the proportion in London increased from 2.3 per cent to 3.9 per cent, and substantial increases were also observed in other cities, including Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Exeter, and Brighton and Hove. This data, however, may not pick up more recent trends. Indeed, survey analysis of those who have taken part in the Cycle to Work scheme found that 62 per cent of those who participated were non-or novice cyclists, suggesting that the scheme is attracting new cyclists rather than merely those who would cycle to work anyway.

A more positive effect relates to the increase in the distance or time spent cycling. A total of nine per cent of respondents were non-cyclists who had started cycling to work, and 57 per cent were cyclists who had increased their cycling intensity as a result of the scheme. Further calculation suggests that the impact equates to roughly an extra 3.6 miles cycled per cyclist per day, or roughly 30 minutes of extra activity per day. This analysis builds on work from Yorkshire[2], Ireland[3], and Belgium[4], consolidating the key benefits of offering a Cycle to Work scheme.

What does this mean?

IES went on to calculate both the health benefits and the subsequent economic benefits of this uptake. Existing literature has highlighted the benefits of increased cardiovascular activity, including reductions in risk and incidence of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers. In addition, the survey analysis found that 86 per cent of respondents felt that they had experienced a health benefit from cycling. This was mainly increased fitness, but some respondents also noted weight loss, reduced stress, and improvements to asthma-related conditions. Given that lack of physical activity is marked as the cause of 16.9 per cent of premature deaths in the UK[5], this could have wide-reaching and positive ramifications in public health on the basis of reasonably low investment.

It is also possible to quantify the potential economic benefits of the scheme based on the costs to employers of employee ill health. Much of the literature comes to varying conclusions on the macroeconomic benefits of investing in cycling, with cost/benefit ratios varying from 2:1 to as high as 19:1[6]. IES built on this by altering the scale, providing a novel assessment of the overall impact to employers and the economy that the Cycle to Work scheme has had in its current form.

The overall impact, based on the calculation that regular cyclists take on average one fewer sick day a year[7] and exhibit reduced mortality rates, is roughly £72 million per year. This is based on the average cost of a sick day of £133.56 to an employer, at current average wages, and a modest impact of 9,200 (5% of total) participants increasing activity by 30 minutes per day. This is, to our knowledge, the first time that such a figure has been calculated around the scheme in practice, and shows a significant economic and social benefit to investing in cycling.

Future actions

Our research shows the tangible benefits of investing in the Cycle to Work scheme, with a modest calculation of £72 million worth of economic and social benefits per year as being indicative of the scheme’s worth, as it also represents a cost/benefit ratio of around 2:1. It also does not consider potential environmental benefits, nor the impact of an increase in occasional cyclists increasing their activity, meaning that the long-term impact could be greater. In an age of tight public finances, investment in schemes such as this could be very cost-effective. The message is clear that the scheme is a positive and successful one, and that expansion and greater investment could be greatly beneficial to employers and employees, as well as society as a whole.


[1] Swift S, Green M, Hillage J, Nafilyan V (2016), Impact of the Cycle to Work Scheme – Evidence Report, Report 509, Institute for Employment Studies

[2] Clarke A, Shires J, Laird J (2014), Cycle to Work scheme – weekend warriors or daily commuters?, Institute for Transport, University of Leeds

[3] Caulfield B, Leahy J (2011), ‘Learning to cycle again: examining the benefits of providing taxfree loans to purchase new bicycles’, Research in Transportation Business & Management, Vol. 2, pp.42–47

[4] Vanoutrive T, Van Malderen L, Jourquin B, Thomas I, Verhetsel A, Witlox F (2009), ‘“Let the business cycle!” A spatial multilevel analysis of cycling to work’, Belgeo, Vol. 2, pp.217–232

[5] Lee I M, Shiroma E J, Lobelo F, Puska P, Blair S N, Katzmarzyk P T, Lancet Physical Activity Series Working Group (2012), ‘Effect of physical inactivity on major non-communicable diseases worldwide: an analysis of burden of disease and life expectancy’, The Lancet, 380(9838), pp.219–229

[6] Davis A (2010), Value for Money: An Economic Assessment of Investment in Walking and Cycling, Department of Health

[7] Hendriksen I J, Simons M, Garre F G and Hildebrandt V H (2010), ‘The association between commuter cycling and sickness absence’, Preventive medicine, Vol. 5, No. 2, pp.132–135