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Pedalling the vision in a headwind of scepticism

Updated: Jul 30, 2019

Active Travel – smart choice

Lets be honest the company car benefit was a desirable. Car travel the obvious choice to and from work and during work. The make and model of car a representation of your success in life. Think BMW, Audi and then Mondeo man. In truth the car was a status symbol in the office car park.

It also represented the ‘default’ choice of transport. Turning the key is as instinctive as putting one foot in front of the other. I still see my neighbour drive the car 0.3km to the start of the trans Pennine trail to take the dog for a walk. An example of how we have rewired the way we move.

We now label physical activity that is used to get us around our daily lives as ‘active travel’; cycling walking, scootering, skipping, however our body propels us under our own steam.

In business meetings I still come across scepticism towards active travel. You see, mention the bike as a viable form of getting around falls on deaf ears a lot of times. Facility teams, management and people who may support the idea but think themselves an exception to the rule.

Responsible business – too right. Employer brand is vital right now. Employees want to associate their own values with sustainable business models. Active travel supports this.

The barriers to cycling. Sometimes cycling is seen as a form of transport for ‘fitties’ or ‘extreme’ active people. It takes the option away from the people we want to nudge toward these behaviours. Walking it seems is too slow in a fast paced world. Even more so to do it. Hit the ‘slow motion’ button to regroup, refresh and take heed of your surroundings to switch off.

I personally feel if you change the active travel conversation to a ‘us’ and ‘them’ argument you have lost the ability to nudge people into considering active travel. Cars vs cyclists. Yes there are good drivers, bad drivers and equally the same categories in cyclists. We have built gyms to exercise. An add on to a busy daily schedule. They are useful no doubt.

However integrating that lost art of regular moving in the day at work, home and leisure is the big ticket item when looking at population health and the levers to achieve public health objectives.

Active travel is one way to help move toward these objectives. As it is attached to something we have to do it is more likely to form a habit. It gives exercise another purpose other than to be more physically active. It presents an opportunity for our Health leaders to exploit.

We accept that the M1, A1 and M62 get congested. It winds us up. Our excuse for bus/train usage is around cancellations and unreliability. Yet we accept delays due to congestion. Yes public transport could be improved.

However compared to a car driver for example, walking and cycling for transport is associated with 11% lower risk of all-cause mortality,4 an 11% reduction in cardiovascular risk and lower adiposity. *7

Not forgetting it isn't just what comes out of the exhaust that matters with car travel. Think friction; brakes, clutch - see graph with % of fine particulate matter emitted into 'our' air. Electric cars solve the problem? Shifting the extra weight from electric cars means more stopping power (brakes/tyres) and resulting particulate matter.

For me a bike weighs 9kg and myself around 92k so 101kg. An electric Tesla weighs in around 2509kg.

Then there is road space taken. See picture below as demonstrated by volunteers in Australia's capital Canberra.

A step in the right direction but it needs to be a foot not a tyre. If it is a tyre an on e bike then yes I can see the case.

We have our own GP Ollie Hart in Sheffield who does an excellent job promoting e-bike travel conducting work on his bike. Remember it doesn't always take a complex solution to meet a complex problem.

Then there is the impact of car use on our communities. Unlike power stations cars thread through the arteries of our neighbourhoods spilling out contaminated air directly along our streets.

They influence our evolutionary ability to move self propelled (walking, cycling, scootering whatever that is) by changing our habits. Convenience. Although I would argue against that. Perceived convenience. Check these average speeds in UK Cities.

Considering the average speed on a bike for an unseasoned cyclist is 10-12mph *8, you are in front of every car in all the cities listed above. Of course add hills, weather and other determinants this could reduce but you are going to equal the car at the minimum. It is about accepting the reality.

Our economy relies on energy for pretty much everything we do. Business, economy, house energy, transporting around and sustaining human life (food production etc). I am not asking people to live in caves. But we need to eek out those parts of our lives where we can make more sustainable changes.

So teething out where changes can be made from the above list where do we start? Remember small changes make a big difference. Accumulative small changes made on a population level even more so. It takes a cultural movement.

A bit like the war on plastic we are seeing at present that is shifting attitudes and behaviours. I mean who wants to see baby whales been poisoned by its mother contaminated milk – attributable to plastic in our oceans. An awful reality.

Equally who wants to see to the unborn baby been affected by air pollution as the expectant mother walks around congested areas or indeed the polluted air that gets into our cars too. You aren't protected in the car. That is the reality.

Because we can’t see the effects of physical inactivity on major body systems (apart from obesity obviously) and air pollution is this invisible force that we ignore, we carry on our lives in an unsustainable way.

I see it as a little game to find the parts of my life where active travel (that’s moving around my daily business with my legs -cycle; walk, public transport) can be integrated into work and personal duties. To do so I come up with some resistance from parts of my extended family. But slowly my habits are filtering down. It takes one person to change to affect others. But this has took years.

Yes technology can play a part in solutions. But we sometimes look for sophisticated solutions to meet sophisticated problems. In reality there are some simple solutions to meet sophisticated problems. Walking more and moving more play a key part in shifting our reliance on inefficient and dirty energy systems as transport.

There is another big reason Government wants to shift away a reliance on cars that exists in society. In 2015/16, 26% of adults were classified as inactive (fewer than 30 minutes physical activity a week). *3

Indeed more than 5 million deaths worldwide are attributed to physical inactivity. In the UK alone it causes one in ten premature deaths from coronary heart disease, and one in six deaths overall.

Evidence shows keeping physically active can reduce the risk of heart and circulatory disease by as much as 35% and risk of early death by as much as 30% *4

From an employers point of view why does this matter? This inactivity doesn’t just put a strain on our health either: in England, the cost of this inactivity is estimated to be around £8.2bn a year. This is made up of the cost of treatment for lifestyle-related illnesses along with indirect costs caused by sick leave. *5

So when it comes down to that individual responsibility how can we change the way we live our lives? Well first of all asking people to give up their cars is, in my opinion, unrealistic.

I personally think a world with far fewer cars would be a better world but accept it is part of a multi-modal transport mix. But a choice relegated down to at least 3rd choice. Car use shouldn't, and now simply can't be our first choice of transport.

For Government, National, Regional and Local this mean challenging the status quo; integrating the active travel conversation to political systems, transport planning, housing and urban development and the NHS playing a wider role in championing the benefits of active travel..

A world where collective responsibility fosters a greater desire to change. A responsibility that shifts attitudes on how we go about and conduct our lives and to be more conscious of how we consume energy that impacts on the environment and our health.

But to achieve this the narrative needs to change. The active travel brigade aren’t the lycra gang. Active travel encompasses all shapes, sizes, gender, age and race – the ultimate goal is for active travel to become the ‘default’ choice to take when travelling.

In urban areas signage including times to destination (especially walking) encourage uptake rather than distance (that to many people doesn’t mean anything). Stick an average calorie burn on there too for good measure.

This is where behavioural change comes in. The study of human behaviour and habits that gives us insight into how we can modify these behaviours using ‘nudges’ and removing barriers to certain activities. According to the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes 66 days to form a new habit.

It is that habitual routine that needs to change. Get out of bed, coffee, step out onto the drive, sit in the car, get the kids to school, go to work and sit at the desk, sit in the café or at the desk with lunch and reverse order back home.

Kids to bed, tv on and some peace and quiet.

There isn’t much wrong with that. But there is a vital part in the day missing. Movement. And with busy lives, touch screen bringing shopping to our homes, operating major house systems, business impacting on our sleep physical activity moves further down the list.

Technology is amazing. But tends to squeeze physical activity even further down the list of priorities. People in the UK are around 20% less active now than in the 1960s. If current trends continue, we will be 35% less active by 2030.

We are the first generation to need to make a conscious decision to build physical activity into our daily lives. Fewer of us have manual jobs. Technology dominates at home and at work, the 2 places where we spend most of our time. Societal changes have designed physical activity out of our lives - it's time to hardwire physical activity back into our new world order and active travel presents one of the best opportunities to do so.


*3 Accessed 27.07.2019

*4 Accessed 27.07.2019

*5 Accessed 27.07.2019

*6 Accessed 27.07.2019



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