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The role of active commuting in promoting health

The evidence is mounting on the role that active commuting can play in increasing physical activity and improving the health of the British workforce. Developing a workplace transport plan, encouraging more commuters to walk and cycle, and investing in active travel interventions seem clearly to be in employers’ interest.

Even the NHS has neglected this area in the past. Only 15% of NHS Trusts currently have a policy or plan to combat staff obesity. Around half of Trusts have undertaken measures to encourage staff to walk or cycle to meetings, and provide information about walking/cycling routes close to their sites.

Examples of workplace active travel intervention

The Ucycle Nottingham project aims to encourage more staff and students to cycle to work and study, more often. The percentage of staff cycling to work at three Nottingham institutions increased from 8% to 13% over the course of a year. For students, the proportion of cycling trips increased from 5% to 7%. Counts of parked bikes at the same three institutions increased by 24%.

Brockman and Fox outline what was achieved at the University of Bristol through implementing a workplace travel plan – even though it had no specific aim to increase active commuting. Between 1998 and 2007, regular walkers to work increased from 19% to 30%, while the percentage of regular cyclists to work increased from 7% to 12%. 70% of regular walkers and cyclists were meeting >80% of their weekly physical activity requirements in terms of time commitment. The increase in staff cycling and walking to work has mirrored a large decrease in the percentage of staff driving to work.

36% of participants in Get Moving North Tyneside said they had reduced their car travel by between one and five miles per day. 33% said that they now walk more for transport as a result of participating in the projects, while 33% said that they now cycle more for transport.

An online walking and cycle challenge took place in Stockton to encourage active travel. Of 29 people who completed the follow-up survey, 25 felt motivated to walk or cycle more in the future. The number of people describing themselves as regular cycle commuters increased from five to 18 people. The carbon savings per day from participants switching from car journeys to active travel were estimated to be 25.5 kg CO2, or 5.6 million kg CO2 per year.

Encouraging active commuting through workplace travel plans and active travel-focused interventions can be very rewarding in terms of increasing physical activity and health amongst staff.

Collaboration across sectors to maximise the benefits of active travel

A recently published report by pteg – Total Transport: working across sectors to achieve better outcomes – highlights the essential role of public transport, walking and cycling in achieving key health, social care and employment policy goals. However, it also warns that this contribution could be put at risk unless there is more focus on collaborative, cross-sector funding and delivery of transport interventions. Research by Sustrans shows that even Directors of Public Health recognise the importance of physical activity (87% rank it as a high priority) levels of engagement between with their relevant transport departments are low.

Even modest investment in workplace cycle training can increase cycling to work. As the population ages and the pressure is on everywhere to increase productivity, it is clear that the promotion of active commuting offers a potential we must not overlook.

1 Comment for “The role of active commuting in promoting health”

  1. Dear Editor,
    I welcome your article about the health benefits of ‘active travel’, and am writing to suggest a simple, low cost way forward which has already worked elsewhere in the UK. A recent scientific article was published in the British Medical Journal which demonstrated that this measure will cut around 40% of road casualties, and make walking and cycling more appealing. What is this simple measure? It is a blanket 20mph limit in all residential areas. I am told that people will not obey the limit, but the evidence from London shows this is not the case. I am told that people will drive faster on other streets, ‘displacing’ the collisions, but this has no happened. I am told that motorists will oppose it, but while I am sure that there are some who may, I doubt they are the majority. After all, they live in residential streets too, and it will mean safer streets whenever they or their families are walking and cycling, plus quieter leisure in the garden and when trying to sleep at night. I’d love to hear what your readers think.
    By the way, I am a consultant in public health at the Bournemouth and Poole PCT.

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