Dr Andy Cope, Director of the Research and Monitoring Unit at Sustrans, considers how the latest research into walking and cycling will affect investment in it.
The Government’s Cycling and Walking investment Strategy, currently under consultation, is unambiguous in its recognition of the health benefits of walking and cycling. It references the 2014 report Claiming the Health Dividend:
'Walking and cycling [contributes to] numerous positive health outcomes in terms of reducing the risk of conditions including cardiovascular disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and a variety of cancers, as well as in terms of mental health, stress, injury risk, health-related quality of life, all-cause mortality and productivity and reduced absenteeism at work.'
However, the extent to which health agendas, and in particular health budgets, will contribute to overall investment in walking and cycling is unclear. The CWIS contains no explicit reference to public health funding.
The recent Public Health England briefing Working together to promote active travel is therefore a very welcome signal of support from the health sector for investment in walking and cycling. The briefing is similarly effusive in presenting the case in favour of supporting walking and cycling. It includes some really useful illustrations of what can be done at a policy level.
Both of these documents contain an important ‘policy-level’ message about what is desirable and why. But there is a gap in the translation of what is desirable to what is possible in a delivery context.
The Sustrans report Fit for Life seeks to add to the evidence base, and to provide a very practical translation of what investment in safe walking and cycling routes can achieve, and how to go about delivering them.
The report presents independent research, by leading experts at the Cedar Centre, into the public health benefits of new walking and cycling routes alongside the lessons in the on-the-ground delivery of such schemes. Sustrans together with many partners, supported by a grant from the Big Lottery Fund, completed many new high quality walking and cycling routes which extended the National Cycle Network into more than 80 communities across the UK. It provided safe crossings of barriers such as busy roads, rivers and railways, making it easier for people to access safe, convenient traffic free cycling and walking routes.
The research findings are from papers published by the iConnect consortium, funded by the EPSRC. The iConnect study aimed to measure and evaluate the changes in travel, physical activity and carbon emissions relating to schemes across the UK. This is important work because few studies have shown how environmental changes like this lead to behaviour change in relation to physical activity.
The Fit for Life report demonstrates how investment in a supportive environment brings health benefits, in addition to mobility, environment and economic benefits.
Despite the weight of evidence of the public health impact of walking and cycling, and the extent of practical expertise that exists to realise these benefits, the gap in the CWIS of an explicit connection to health funding sources is a major concern. We hope to see this addressed as the CWIS process progresses.
If you want to discuss any of the issues rasied here further, please email me.