Walking and cycling is the oxygen for healthy towns and cities

By Dr Adrian Davis,
Bristol ride to Portishead.

Walking and cycling are essential for healthy, vibrant and economically successful cities and Sustrans’ new Active Travel Toolbox provides the evidence to show how.

Part of the barrier to increasing walking and cycling in the UK is the outcome of a distorted way of viewing transport among many decision makers.

A German researcher coined the phrase ‘Wind-Schutz-Scheiben-Perspektive’ - windscreen perspective, in the 1970s, to point out that if you only ever see the street from behind a windscreen then you are unlikely to understand the needs of those other road users.

For example, do decision makers consider that many children who would love to walk or cycle to school cannot because of parental fears about motorised traffic danger? And, that in turn, this restriction is contributing to unhealthy weight gain in children.

Benefits of cycling and costs of inactivity

The research evidence-base on transport and health has grown in recent decades, and we know much more about the benefits of physical activity as part of the routine of daily travel.

Conversely, we also know more as to the costs to individuals and societies through low levels of physical activity, both in terms of the risk of major diseases like Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) – the UK’s no.1 killer - and mental health impacts of insufficient physical activity on depression and wellbeing.

The costs to health for CHD alone is £4 billion a year from low levels of physical activity and an unnecessary burden on the NHS, on employers, and on families.

Negotiating transport planning complexities

The decision-making process in transport planning in England is perhaps more complex now than it has ever been.

Aside from funding through the Department for Transport for national programmes, local highway authorities need to interact with other bodies which have influence and access to funding. Not the least of these are 39 Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), local business led partnerships with local authorities.

LEPs play a central role in determining local economic priorities and accessing funding. In order to help LEPs in their understanding as to the central role of sustainable transport in helping economies thrive, the Department for Transport funded the collation of an evidence toolbox. Designed to help LEPs, and local practitioners more widely, make more informed decisions about transport planning, public health is one area of focus.

So what would help people travel actively?

Firstly, in the longer term, the way we separate housing from jobs and local services determines the distances people need to travel. With large spatial planning programmes in progress across England to support housing growth now is an important time to highlight the critical role of mixed-use developments where local services are within easy, walking and cycling distances. The shorter the distance between home and work the greater the likelihood of walking, or cycling.

Secondly, there are the environments we travel in. Segregated cycle routes that create dedicated space for bicycles come up high on many people’s requirements. Default 20mph speed limits also help. It is hard for areas with 30mph speed limits to ever be pedestrian or cycling-friendly.

Promoting routine physical activity

Physical activity, through active daily living, is at the core of improving the way transport planning can help towns and cities work more efficiently. Physical activity is, arguably, the nearest thing we have to a ‘magic bullet’ that can be prescribed for many ills associated with current mobility provision and lifestyle behaviours.

Achieving just 30 mins on at least 5 days each week reduces the risk of dying under the age of 75 by 30% on average, let alone the associated reduced periods of illness during a lifespan.

Moreover, there are a myriad of associated ‘co-benefits’, such as better academic attainment in schools when children are more physically active (more oxygenated blood flowing through the brain), improved air quality, more reliable journey times for all travellers, and so on.

Walking and cycling is the oxygen for sustainable, vibrant and economically successful cities.

The Active Travel Toolbox is anchored in peer-reviewed evidence, for improved health and wellbeing of the workforce with increased levels of walking and cycling. Case studies provide real world examples of businesses where interventions have led to both improved health outcomes and ways in which behaviour changes can be introduced.

The Toolbox provides clear evidence to the LEPs: active travel is essential for economic prosperity and the health of society. Period.

Get free access to the Active Travel Toolbox