Walking, cycling and public transport: urban design needs to do more to encourage active modes

The evidence continues to mount that walking, cycling and using public transport are indispensable starting points for urban design. They can, and as shown in a recent study, do provide populations opportunities to achieve and exceed the minimum amounts of physical activity needed. But, this only applies to those who do it, and not the majority who do little or no walking or cycling.

A frighteningly high proportion of the EU population has been telling researchers they do not walk or cycle despite years of warnings, HEPA promotion campaigns, and more.

The new study, Adult Active Transport in the Netherlands: An Analysis of Its Contribution to Physical Activity Requirements by Elliot Fishman , Lars Böcker, Marco Helbich, throws new light on the subject. The last word comes from study author Fishman: “Car ownership had a strong negative relationship with physically active travel.”

Access the study here

Modern, urban lifestyles have engineered physical activity out of everyday life and this presents a major threat to human health. The Netherlands is a world leader in active travel, particularly cycling, but little research has sought to quantify the cumulative amount of physical activity through everyday walking and cycling.

Using data collected as part of the Dutch National Travel Survey (2010 – 2012), this paper determines the degree to which Dutch walking and cycling contributes to meeting minimum level of physical activity of 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity throughout the week. The sample includes 74,465 individuals who recorded at least some travel on the day surveyed. As physical activity benefits are cumulative, all walking and cycling trips are analysed, including those to and from public transport. These trips are then converted into an established measure of physical activity intensity, known as metabolic equivalents of tasks. Multivariate Tobit regression models were performed on a range of socio-demographic, transport resources, urban form and meteorological characteristics.

The results reveal that Dutch men and women participate in 24 and 28 minutes of daily physical activity through walking and cycling, which is 41% and 55% more than the minimum recommended level. It should be noted however that some 57% of the entire sample failed to record any walking or cycling, and an investigation of this particular group serves as an important topic of future research. Active transport was positively related with age, income, bicycle ownership, urban density and air temperature. Car ownership had a strong negative relationship with physically active travel.

The results of this analysis demonstrate the significance of active transport to counter the emerging issue of sedentary lifestyle disease. The Dutch experience provides other countries with a highly relevant case study in the creation of environments and cultures that support healthy, active living.

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