City planners across Europe are increasingly looking at ways to promote cycling and walking as a way to reduce mortality rates resulting from sedentary lifestyles.
Sedentary behaviour is one of the leading risk factors for ill-health in Europe with the World Health Organization (WHO) estimating that one million deaths per year are attributable to physical inactivity.
But while policymakers acknowledge the link between transport and health, there are few concrete initiatives at national or EU level to promote active travel, participants told a conference in Brussels on Thursday (19 September).
Health and transport ministries are not used to cooperate and "share money", NGOs and EU city representatives said at a panel discussion organised by Polis, a network of European cities and regions promoting sustainable mobility.
"People working in public health may not have that much influence on public transport, yet," said Phil Insall, health director at Sustrans, a British charity promoting sustainable transport.
"And professionals working in transport certainly don’t see guidance and recommendations published by their national health ministry. It’s therefore quite important that we influence and speak to the transport sector," Insall added.
Benjamin Collin from the French Ministry of Ecology, Energy and Sustainable Development said that in his country, the government is now trying to create a link, not only between transport and environment, but also with health.
"We try to talk with experts on both health, environment and transport issues, using the different studies they have. We have here a dialogue that can bring new solutions with the help from the delegates to improve active mobility", Collin said.
Christian Schweizer, technical officer at the WHO, said that the picture is diverse across the European region when it comes to national governments taking an interest in improving health via transport considerations.
"In Eastern Europe, I’m afraid to say health is really only dealt with through healthcare. When it comes to prevention, which is what we are talking about here through better transport choices, it’s not very popular. Healthcare at national level has an interest of course in reducing immobility and mortality because that costs money," he said.
Kieran Taylor, transport projects officer at the London Borough of Hounslow, mentioned that the key barrier is winning over the public and this could be done through public campaigns.
"I would like to see a public campaign to really drive home the message of how damaging transport is. The roads of London are like the open sewers of the 18th century. That’s where the pollution is coming from and where the disease is," Taylor continued.
"If you are looking to make cycling and walking more attractive… when you hear from surveys from Copenhagen that people say it’s easier and convenient to get around by bike because they have made it more difficult to get around by car… That’s such a hard message for people already used to getting around by car," Taylor said.
As around 60% of Europeans seldom engage in sport or physical activity, the European Commission has recently made a proposal to promote physical activity across the policy sectors that play a health role, i.e. sport and health, education, urban planning and the work environment.
The Commission's new proposal is based on the 2008 EU Physical Activity Guidelines and introduces a new monitoring framework, including a set of indicators.
This should enable member states, over time, to identify trends and to adapt their policies towards a more cross-sectoral approach on health-enhancing physical activity (HEPA).
- 16-22 Sept.: European Mobility Week
- 22 Sept.: Car-free Sunday in Brussels
- World Health Organization (WHO): Health economic assessment tool (HEAT) for cycling and walking