ACTIVE TRAVEL IS KEY TO THE NATION’S HEALTH

cyclist on a cycle lane

This article appeared in Local Transport Today magazine, 13th May 2016

The UK is out of shape. According to a recent study by the University of Washington, almost two-thirds of English adults are either obese or overweight. In western Europe, only Malta and Iceland beat us when it comes to obesity. This trend is forcing the Government to pay attention, not least because of the gigantic costs it inflicts on the NHS.

It seems that every other week brings a new scare story about diet and nutrition with sugar the latest villain and a soft-drink sugar tax duly announced by the (newly slimline) Chancellor. But there can be little doubt that the problem is not just what we eat – as important as that is – but how much, or rather how little we move.

For millions of Britons, it is inactivity at least as much as overeating that is the cause for concern. Last December the UK Government published a new strategy for sport called Sporting Future – A New Strategy for an Active Nation. This isn’t a strategy written for the sporting elite but a strategy for the many... a strategy to get a nation active because this continuing decline not just in organised sports but in everyday levels of physical activity such as walking to the shops or cycling to school is driving the country towards the coronary wards. It is a trend that is costing the NHS an estimated £7.4bn every year through increased levels of physical and mental illness. 

The Chief Medical Officer recommends 150 minutes of ‘physical activity’ a week – that’s just over 20 minutes a day – but only 66% of men and 56% of women in England achieve this. Just think of the role the transport industry could play in the nation’s health and to the NHS bank balance if we can get more people walking and cycling? But attitudes to transport planning over recent decades have only exacerbated the trend, treating cycling and walking as mere add-ons to the main modes of transport rather than transport modes in their own right, emphasising speed and efficiency and undervaluing the benefits of human-scaled streets. It seems obvious that if something can be done about that, getting people walking or cycling again for short journeys or as part of longer ones, the impact on the nation’s health and the quality of life in our cities could be immense. And so the DfT’s Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy, setting out plans to embed active transport as a central part of civic life, was eagerly anticipated as a potential game changer, the chance to take a fundamentally new direction when it comes to transport planning. I think it is fair to say that the reality when the document was finally released on Easter Sunday proved – to be polite about it – disappointing.

The problem doesn’t seem to be a lack of understanding – the strategy makes all the right noises. But when it comes to hard cash it begins to look like all the positive talk is just that – talk – and the old prejudice that transport policy really means trains, planes and automobiles continues to hold sway. Only £316m is promised to support cycling and walking for the whole of this parliament. That is approximately £1.38/head outside London. However, the Get Britain Cycling report, backed by The Times among others, called for initial spending of £10 per person per year, rising to £20 – £1bn a year.

The DfT strategy aims at a target of doubling the number of trips taken annually by bicycle by 2025. That sounds impressive until you remember that currently fewer than 2% of trips are taken on two wheels, which means the investment will only deliver an increase to something like 3.5% of journeys taken by bike. Compare that to the Netherlands where 27% of journeys are taken by bicycle with a spend of £24 per person per year. And, to put the figures into even starker contrast, consider that funding released for road building and improvement for this parliament is £15.2bn.

This gaping disparity in funding indicates a lack of real commitment to the active transport agenda, despite all the wise words and public applause expended on it. And what makes this all the more difficult to swallow is that increased investment in cycling and walking might very well pay for itself, and quickly too, as health improvements lead to direct savings for the NHS.

Don’t get me wrong, the draft strategy isn’t all bad by any means. Saying the right things – even without the cash to back them up – is a lot better than silence and it is encouraging to see the DfT take a more outward-looking, collaborative approach, working with other government departments and agencies and seeking to deliver the strategy through an expert committee that encompasses a range of fields. It bodes well for a future transport policy that is a truly holistic in approach. But I have seen first-hand the impact that we can make on communities right now if we have the resources to do the things that change behaviours and the infrastructure that allows change to happen, and that makes this missed opportunity very hard to accept.

The work of JMP and SYSTRA has shown time and again that with the right approach behavioural change not only happens but it sticks. In the seven large-scale personalised travel projects that we ran in locations as disparate as Luton and St Helens supported by the Government’s Local Sustainable Transport Fund, an average 31% of participants increased the amount of walking they do, and 17% cycled more. The health benefits were almost immediate, with huge reported improvements in mental health as well as physical well-being, which means better, happier lives and – to be hard-headed about it – money that the NHS won’t have to spend on future treatment.

Recognising the importance of active travel and health, JMP has formed a partnership with ukactive (http://www.ukactive.com/), a not-for-profit body comprised of members and partners from across the UK active lifestyle sector and focused on a long-standing and uncompromising vision to get more people more active, more often. We will be working closely with the ukactive team to promote the cross-sector benefits, lobby for change and deliver on a vision we both share.  

None of this is mysterious or impossibly complex. We can make it happen, we know how, all it requires is the right expertise combined with determination, passion, political will and the proper investment.