People living in close proximity to high quality walking and cycling routes more likely to increase total level of activity

New research published on both sides of the Atlantic has found people living in close proximity to high quality walking and cycling routes were more likely to have increased their total levels of physical activity, within two years, than those living further away. In an article published in The American Journal of Public Health, a team from the i-Connect consortium in the UK evaluated the effects of providing new high-quality, traffic-free routes for walking and cycling on overall levels of walking, cycling, and physical activity. Transport network distance from home to infrastructure defined intervention exposure, and provided a basis for controlled comparisons.

Results showed that living nearer the infrastructure did not predict changes in activity levels at 1-year follow-up, but did predict increases in activity at 2 years relative to those living farther away (15.3 additional minutes/week walking and cycling per km nearer; 12.5 additional minutes/week of total physical activity). The effects were larger among participants with no car.

These new local routes may mainly have displaced walking or cycling trips in the short term but generated new trips in the longer term, particularly among those unable to access more distant destinations by car. These findings support the potential for walking and cycling infrastructure to promote physical activity. These results followed on from earlier studies that examined how adults use new local walking and cycling routes, and what characteristics predict use.

The results also have great significance for new ideas on the 'pooling' of resources to tackle interlinked issues which crosss the administrative divides of the place and movement sectors. Only this week, UK MPs called for a large-scale pilot of a 'total transport' scheme where different transport budgets held by health, social services, transport and other departments are pooled to improve transport provision.

Additionally, in their Signals 2014 publication, the European Environment Agency has called for a systemic approach in the way we look at certain issues – meaning they want to encourage people to think about issues such as transport, health and growth as part of a bigger interlinked ‘system’, which better fits reality. Up until now, experts have sometimes preferred to keep within the boundaries of their discipline, overlooking the effects that do not fall within the range of their microscope. But the need to branch out is especially relevant for building the cities of tomorrow that need to run on less: resource efficiency, the circular economy and smart growth.

Researchers from the i-Connect consortium underline links between transport issues and health issues. Their work emphasised that a 'significant effect' on activity levels was not charted until the two-year analysis, suggesting ‘it can take time’ for the benefits of such routes to be realised.

Dr Anna Goodman, lecturer at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: ‘These findings support the case for changing the environment to promote physical activity by making walking and cycling safer, more convenient and more attractive.

'The fact that we showed an increase in overall levels of physical activity is very important, and shows that interventions of this sort can play a part in wider public health efforts to prevent diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions.’

Malcolm Shepherd, chief executive Sustrans, said: ‘It’s clear that when good quality infrastructure exists, people use it.

‘With a physical inactivity crisis and traffic jams clogging our towns and cities the case has never been stronger for governments to guarantee dedicated funding for quality walking and cycling routes for everyone.’

Chair of the Big Lottery Fund, Peter Ainsworth, added: ‘In 2007, Sustrans’ Connect2 project won the public TV vote to bring £50m from the Big Lottery Fund to communities across the UK to create networks for everyday journeys for people travelling by foot or bike. The study released today showcases brilliantly the long lasting benefits that this transformational funding is achieving in creating greener, healthier, fitter and safer communities.’

The European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF) backs the EEA’s proposal and urges all actors involved in the fields of environment and transport to take up their recommendations. Doing so will change the way we perceive society’s major challenges, and has the potential to dramatically recalibrate our priorities for the better. Recommendation 6 of our European manifesto for 2014-2019 reads:

'Transport and public health are intricately linked. Lack of physical activity is the greatest risk for major lifestyle diseases and the most important cost driver for European health care systems. Active mobility can reduce these costs considerably as prevention is much cheaper than treatment. (…) Member States should include the benefits of cycling in health policy and to integrate the health dimension in transport appraisal.'

The consequences of congestion in urban zones are as far-reaching as they are diverse. It’s about much more than the immediate nuisance of wasted time – not only does a city centre in gridlock see its economy suffer and its people despair, but most notably it will have a negative impact on citizens’ health and well-being. ECF has long encouraged decision-makers to consider the wider picture when looking at the benefits that cycling has to offer for both urban mobility and society in general.

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