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Transport and health: is there a silver bullet?

Marc Woodall | 21 Mar 2017 | Comments

The evidence is clear, walking and cycling are good for your health.

Studies by the World Health Organisation and Public Health England show that people who exercise every day for 15 minutes, are 30% less likely to suffer from illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes. Their risk of certain cancers also falls by up to 30%.

But it's not only about good health; a greater number of people choosing to walk and cycle also makes good transport and urban planning sense. Transport users who walk or cycle better economise road space when travelling, in comparison to some other travel modes such as cars or taxis. Naturally this benefit extends to parking issues; you could store 20 bicycles in the same space as one car. Air quality and carbon emission benefits are well documented, and studies such as the Department for Transport's The Value of Cycling report suggest that people who the visit shops on foot or by bike spend more than people who drive.

Beyond evidence based studies alone, the walking and cycling agenda has been supported by: industry collaboration, sharing of best practice, commitment at policy level by government funding schemes and the launch of their cycling and walking specific strategy.

When you combine these benefits, encouraging walking and cycling as the mode of choice seems to be the silver bullet to some of the challenges that society is facing. Inevitably however, there are certain challenges and barriers to increasing levels of walking and cycling that require further consideration.

There has been a real drive toward urban planning for all travel modes, but legacy designs tend to be designed around travel by car. In some areas, this has created a challenging environment for pedestrians and cyclists. It has undoubtedly contributed to fewer cyclists and pedestrians using such routes.

Naturally, walking and cycling is also limited as the mode of choice for longer journeys. Studies have demonstrated walking is considered an option for only the shortest trips, whilst cycling is most popular for trips of up to five miles. A further consideration is that often walking and cycling form part of an intermodal journey. Transport users who travel actively need to plan for each leg of their journey, as opposed to the convenience of other alternatives, such as hopping in the car to get around.

We need to closely combine new infrastructure that prioritises walking and cycling modes in their design, with a long term behaviour change campaign focussed on positively changing perceptions of active travel. This would give us the opportunity to re-balance our transport system to better meet the needs of walking and cycling modes.

We also need to support this by better using data to understand the drivers and influences responsible for inspiring change. This will be fundamental to learning from and continuing the momentum created by schemes such as the local sustainable transport fund. After all, sustained behaviour change activities take years or decades to truly engender transformative shifts in behaviour.

The silver bullet is there; but we need to be bolder with our long term strategy to realise the full potential of active travel modes, and their contribution to building well connected and healthy communities.