‘We need to promote walking and cycling’

The UK based Active Travel programme aims to find synergies between public health objectives and transport policy by simply promoting walking and cycling.

Philip Insall is the director of Active Travel, one of the programmes of Sustrans, which is an NGO working on transport projects in the UK to “increase the chance for people to get out of theirs cars and to travel by walking, cycling or by public transport”.

What is Active Travel? 

Active Travel was set up in 2000 and concentrates on getting public health objectives into transport policy and to making public health policy fully aware of the potential of travel behaviour change in promoting physical activity and improving public health. Our aim is to bridge the transport, environment and public health policy sectors. 

It is really about shared policy objectives. People working on environment and climate change, on promoting public health and fight against non-communicable disease and those with transport objectives of reducing congestion can all get what they want by promoting walking and cycling. 

Is your ‘active travel’ the same thing as the ‘active commuting’ expression used by the Commission in its White Paper on diet, physical activity and health with regard encouraging physical activity? 

Active commuting is a good thing but Sustran has a clearer focus. A relatively small proportion of all trips is related to work. People making policies are people who regularly go to their office probably by car, and commuting is something that ranks high in their mind. Policy maker is a regular commuter whereas an average member of the population is not and only about one journey in six is actually related to work in any way and something like five journeys out of six begin or end at home. 

What should the Commission then promote instead of active commuting? 

Active travel ! Because another thing with active commuting is that for many people the journey to work is not a journey that is easy to do by walking or cycling and for many it is not going to be the first choice. 

Sustran has an environmental approach: we modify the environment so as to offer people more choices. Then they can decide which journey they want to change and which they don’t.

What is needed to encourage more active travel? 

First we need to remove the physical barriers to active travel. This implies acting on very dense traffic roads and on the lack of provisions for walking and cycling. So removing the physical barriers might be clearing the pedestrians’ footways, widening them, making sure the surfaces are good. For cycling one can put in place cycle lanes and cycle parkings at destinations or some more technical things like advanced top-line to make cyclist feel more secure. 

Secondly, we need to remove cultural barriers. Children are often prevented from cycling to school. In the UK, there are still schools that have rules forbidding children from doing that. Perhaps one of the biggest cultural things of all is, however, leadership: the prime minister of a country or the president of an enterprise should be seen walking or cycling. One should not automatically measure one’s status on how big one’s car is. 

We need to change how people think. In some countries it is already very common also for senior people to drive a bicycle or take public transport but in the UK at least we still have quite some work to do. 

Thirdly, we still have in the UK a lot of financial incentives to sedentary travel – motorised transport – and particularly private motor transport still has some advantageous tax treatment. A typical example is a major employer in the private sector or in the public sector, who has a big car park outside his urban premises. It is a parking for thousand of cars in the middle of the city where a car park space is 1500 or 2000 euro a year. This employer will then give those parking places to people who drive, but if you don’t drive, the employer won’t give 1500 euros to buy a season ticket or a bicycle. So you have a very valuable subsidy to driving which is only available if you drive, that’s a very strong incentive to be sedentary, and to pollute. 

So what more can be cone at EU level, by the Commission? 

If the European Commission is clear that it wants to promote healthy sustainable behaviour – and for that matter this is not just about health as it is very keen to reduce carbon emissions as well – one of the best ways to do that is to say that projects and programmes coming forward for European funding need to demonstrate that they will have positive effects on the physical activity level of the population and on the carbon emissions. 

The Commission should judge the project proposals it receives under different programmes with regard how well they address European policies’ stated objectives on promoting physical activity, improving the health of European citizens or reducing climate change emissions. A project funded under structural funds for example should be judged on whether it encourages sedentary motorised transport that pollutes or anything that encourage people to travel in ways that benefit their health and the environment. 

There’s much more to physical activity than sport. Physical activity comes from different types of activities. The largest part of physical activity still comes from peoples’ work as there are still people who have active work. Sport accounts for some 8% of the physical activity that people do in the UK. Sport has a lot of resources and really high profile, it is in the paper every day. 

Just walking, which accounts for 12% of the physical activity, is completely ignored and nobody is doing anything to promote it. So we should already be putting 50% more money to walking than we put into sport. I’m not ‘anti sport’, but sport appeals to people who like sport whereas the health gain we can get from physical activity is getting people who are very inactive to do a little bit more of it. You can’t sell sport to very inactive people, whereas walking down to the shop is doable and realistic.

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LIFE TACKLE is co-funded by the LIFE Environmental Governance and Information Programme of the European Union - Project Number LIFE17 GIE/IT/000611



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