the evidence

Active travel is good for individuals and for society.  A shift from sedentary, motorised transport to walking and cycling has so many benefits that policy makers seem to have become confused.  There can be no other explanation for their failure to capitalise on this range of positive impacts.

Below are some key arguments and useful, robust, authoritative sources.  We have not sought to review and precis every academic paper, but the links we provide will lead you towards primary sources if you want them.  Or ask…..

Active travel is healthy physical activity

Physical activity is good for you.  Everyone knows that now.   Inactive lifestyles cause more than one in eight cases of stroke, one in seven of diabetes, one in six of colon cancer, one in five of Coronary Heart Disease.  It’s been said many times: if a virus were causing all these deaths we would declare a global emergency.  For a useful briefing, see Start Active, Stay Active from the four UK Chief Medical Officers.

Aside from the terrible impact on individuals, inactivity is undermining our economy.  The All Party Commission on Physical Activity found that inactivity costs the UK £20 billion a year.  That is not a misprint.  How can we afford this, in a time of austerity?

Active travel has a key role in addressing this global epidemic.  The four CMOs say “for most people, the easiest and most acceptable forms of physical activity are those that can be incorporated into everyday life. Examples include walking or cycling instead of travelling by car, bus or train”.  In fact they said this in 2011: why, years later, is transport investment still focused overwhelmingly on encouraging further car use?

Air pollution: we must shift away from car dependency

Everyone now knows about the deadly impact of local toxic air pollution.  Each time the data on air pollution get clearer, the impact in terms of premature mortality can be seen to be higher, and currently at least 40,000 people are dying prematurely in the UK from outdoor pollution, most of it from motor vehicles.

The Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health convened a working party to look into air quality, which reported in February 2016.  They found a mountain of evidence showing air pollution impacting on everyone from children’s development in the womb to older people’s rates of cognitive decline.  Predictably therefore, the royal colleges and their experts make a number of recommendations aimed at reducing people’s exposure to motor traffic pollutants.  Just like the CMOs did, they urge a shift from driving to walking and cycling, and they call for urban roads to be closed or traffic reduced when air quality limits are being breached.

Road casualties: we can’t go on like this

In 2014, government coolly notes, 1,775 people were killed on our roads and almost 23,000 seriously injured: five dead and 62 serious injuries a day.  We have come to regard this as the norm – in fact if the toll declines a little in 2015 (in 2014 it rose steeply on the previous year) we will probably see it presented as a good new story.  72% of deaths and injuries occurred on urban streets.  We need to get speeds down and shift local journeys from motor vehicles to walking and cycling, and we need to do it now.

Sweden has been working on its Vision Zero road safety approach for almost 20 years.  Vision Zero means what it says: even one road death is unacceptable.  See here for more information, or here to see what New York City thinks about the concept.


One stat tells you all you need to know: in the year 2008 Swedish society got as far as October 22nd before killing a child on the road.  I have not been able to identify when we in the UK killed our first child of that year, but the stats suggest it would have been much earlier.

Shall we implement Vision Zero in the UK, or are we too scared of motoring lobbies protesting a ‘war on the motorist’?

Traffic and social severance

Right back in the early 1970s, researchers in San Francisco spotted that the speed and volume of traffic on otherwise similar streets seemed to impact on people’s levels of interaction and social contact.  Well, of course they did! 

Donald Appleyard’s work (see here, for example) started a new science: we now know that isolation makes people ill and shortens their lives, and that motor traffic isolates.  People live where they live – it’s not for them to have to move, we need to remove the traffic from their neighbourhoods.

Value for money

The UK Department for Transport (DfT) uses Cost-Benefit Analysis to calculate the value achieved from investment in transport schemes.  The main economic benefit arising from schemes is journey time saved by travellers. 

This of course means the benefits are guesses, and quite likely spurious.  Nobody really knows what the economic impact will be if a new road scheme gets me to work a minute earlier, or if I lose a minute when the new road fills up with traffic, as they do.  And of course one likely impact of slight improvements to commuting trip times is that commuters choose to live further from their work and travel longer distances.  See some intelligent musing from Sustrans’ Andy Cope on this.

DfT regards any scheme returning a Benefit to Cost Ratio (BCR) of 4:1 as very high value for money: many, many projects go ahead with much lower BCRs than this.  The DfT’s own report, Claiming the Health Dividend, showed that active travel schemes in the UK achieved a mean BCR of 5.62:1.  This is excellent value, better than almost any motor travel scheme ….. so why is transport investment moving away from walking and cycling? 

Possibly, because DfT stumps up transport investment but the payback comes to the NHS.  In 2010 the CMO for England called for a doubling of walking and an eight-fold increase in cycling.  When public health economists modelled the impact of achieving this, they found that within 20 years it would lead to savings of £17 billion (in 2010 prices) for the NHS in England and Wales. 

So perhaps the Secretaries of State for Transport and for Health could meet with the Chancellor, and develop a collaborative active travel investment programme generating major savings for the Exchequer as a whole?  To help them, the list of co-benefits from a shift to active travel would include all those listed above, plus a reduction in climate emissions, congestion, noise, community severance and social isolation, financial investment savings and more jobs per pound invested. 

Active travel: it’s a win/win/win/win/win/win.