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Christian Friis Bach

Bach's Blog

The Executive Secretary's Blog

Saddle up for sustainable development!

Coming from Denmark I “grew up on a bike”, and I have been cycling to work in Geneva since taking office as UNECE Executive Secretary in August 2014. One of the first things I took care of when I arrived was to ensure that we could easily park our bikes just outside our entrance to the Palais de Nation!  

The opening of the Cycling Festival Europe 2016 on 14 April, an initiative of the Dutch EU Presidency, offers a unique opportunity to reflect on the many benefits of cycling.  Biking to work, instead of taking my car, makes me wake up in the morning and with the many traffic jams in Geneva it is often much faster. But there are many other benefits: improved health, less pollution, energy savings, less congestion. Bicycles have a significant potential to contribute to the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.

Health improvements represent the bulk of the benefits: indeed, three quarter of all benefits of cycling are health-related. The World Health Organization finds that almost one million deaths per year in the European region can be attributed to physical inactivity. According to this analysis, the cost of physical inactivity can be estimated at around €150–300 per citizen per year. Another study explains that a person switching from car to bike for a five kilometres daily commute achieves health benefits amounting to €1,300 annually. The costs of public health systems could therefore be reduced dramatically by a higher use of bicycles. In total, the monetary value of these health benefits could reach €120 billion in the European Union alone, mainly by saving about 10,000 lives per year.

An increased cycling rate offers other opportunities, such as improving road safety and ensuring access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems. Infrastructure initiatives related to cycling have the advantage that they can be completed in a relatively short time. In addition, studies show that the benefits resulting from investments in cycling infrastructure are on average five times higher than their costs, as we highlighted in our UNECE Sustainable Development Brief. Another recent study compared the cost of cars and bicycles in Copenhagen in terms of air pollution, climate change, travel route, noise, road wear, health and congestion. The conclusion was that a car costs €0.50 per kilometre but a bicycle only costs €0.08 per kilometre.

And last but certainly not least, the economy can benefit greatly from more cycling. Increased urbanization and a growing urban density offer lots of new opportunities for cycling and in turn, cycling adds value to urban properties and local retailing activities. Cycling can also facilitate access to job markets that would be difficult to reach otherwise, directly or as option connecting different modes of transport. This may be particularly important for low income users, thus favoring social inclusion. In addition, cycling can also be a direct source of jobs. For instance, a study conducted in the framework of the Transport, Health and Environment Pan-European Programme (THE PEP), which is jointly managed by UNECE and WHO/Europe, concluded that increasing the modal share of cycling in the large cities in the European region to the levels observed in Copenhagen (26%) has the potential to create almost 77,000 jobs.

However, studies show that only 7.4% of the European citizens use the bicycle as their preferred form of transportation. Considering the fact that 75% of the EU’s inhabitants live in urban areas, cycling still holds a great untapped potential, since it has direct positive impacts, not only on individuals but on the economy as a whole.

Despite these multiple benefits, too many countries, cities, organizations and companies do not give priority to cycling in their planning or infrastructure investments. Here in Geneva there is an astonishing lack of proper bike lanes and biking infrastructure and for this reason many of my colleagues are afraid of biking. When I visit other UN offices or organizations in town I am still told to park my bike at the back or in the basement far away from the entrance (while I can drive directly to the entrance with my car). There is a need for action to improve this, in the UN, in organizations, companies, in Geneva and all over the world!

Join us and other partners in Geneva for the Cycling Festival Europe 2016 to promote cycling for improved health, cleaner air and a better environment. Saddle up!


If you wonder why the animal accompanying my blog is a cow, it is because cows are fascinating animals; the cows of our host country, Switzerland, are famous for their quality; and because I am still a farmer, and miss the cows I had in Denmark. Now I got one back.