This is a plain English summary of an original research article. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and reviewer(s) at the time of publication.
Better pathways promote walking and cycling among local residents. New research has shown that features of the pathways influence which groups of people use them most. For example, use of paths near public transport increased at peak commuting times. Such features impact the cost-effectiveness of pathways and need to be considered at the planning stage, the researchers say.
A £175 million programme called Connect2, led by the charity Sustrans, created or upgraded 84 walking and cycling routes across the UK. This research looked at the impact of the new paths; it measured levels of walking and cycling before and after Connect2.
The sharpest increases in activity were seen where there was least walking and cycling before the pathways were built or improved. This suggests the pathways can help reduce health inequalities. In deprived areas, paths near a high population density saw large increases in walking and cycling.
In less deprived areas, there was a marked increase in the numbers of women and people with disabilities or long-term illnesses who walked or cycled. Paths that went through tunnels or over bridges increased use, but the increase was less marked among women cyclists than among other groups.
The research identified the need for better planning and evaluation of new routes.
What’s the issue?
Physical activity decreases the risk of premature death and lowers the risk of some common long-term conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Such conditions reduce people’s quality of life. They also put a financial burden on the NHS: the cost of care for people with cardiovascular disease in England is estimated to be £7.4 billion per year.
Since increasing the number of cycling and walking paths has been shown to increase physical activity, the UK Government set the ambitious target of doubling levels of cycling and walking between 2013 and 2025. But little research has been done into the features of paths that encourage most use. There is also a lack of research into the needs of different groups of people using the pathways.
The Connect2 project built or upgraded 84 paths across the UK. Upgrading included improved safety features such as road crossings or traffic-free routes, for example. This large-scale work on walking and cycle paths provided the opportunity for researchers to look in depth at people’s use of them.
This study explored whether the paths increased the numbers of cyclists and pedestrians. It investigated the influence of features such as tunnels or bridges on people’s use of the paths. And it considered nearby transport links and the density of population in the area.
The study measured the general population’s use of the paths, but also looked at groups of people with different needs. They looked at older people, those living with disabilities or long-term illness, and people from the most deprived areas. They explored whether better walking and cycling pathways could help reduce health inequalities.
The researchers gathered data before and after the pathways were built or improved. Sustrans collected count data of the number of users and conducted surveys of people on the paths. The researchers also included data from a study called iConnect, based on responses from residents who lived near three of the Connect2 schemes. These people were surveyed before the scheme was completed, and again 1 and 2 years after it was open.
Analysis of this data showed that most route users were pedestrians rather than cyclists. They were mostly of White ethnicity, and did not have disabilities or long-term illnesses. They were more commonly working age men, and from deprived areas. Many of the paths were used mostly for recreation, rather than for commuting.
Overall, the new and improved paths led to an increase in the number of cyclists (52% increase) and pedestrians (38% increase). Compared to before the 84 paths were built or improved:
- 1 in 4 (22 schemes) saw twice as many cyclists; almost 1 in 2 (39 schemes) saw a 50% increase in cyclists
- 1 in 5 (17 schemes) saw twice as many pedestrians; almost 2 in 5 (32 schemes) saw a 50% increase in pedestrians.
Among people who answered the iConnect surveys, those who used the paths were much more likely than non-users to say they met recommended levels of weekly activity. The study found that:
- more than 4 in 5 people who used the paths met these levels (87% after 1 year; 84% after 2 years)
- fewer people who did not use the paths met these levels (66% at 1 year; 64% at 2 years).
Different groups had different responses to the new/improved paths:
- the sharpest increases in use were seen in areas where there was least walking and cycling before the Connect2 project
- in deprived areas, paths near a high population density saw large increases in walking and cycling
- in less deprived areas, there was a marked increase in the numbers of women and people with disabilities or long-term illnesses who walked or cycled
- where paths went through tunnels or over bridges, the increase in use by women cyclists was less marked than among other groups
- where there was public transport within 0.5 miles, use of the paths during peak commuting times increased.
Half of the schemes had a very high cost-benefit ratio. The best value was seen when there was public transport nearby and where schemes were low cost. In addition, where there were high levels of walking and cycling before Connect2, schemes were likely to lead to large increases in the numbers of people using them.
Why is this important?
This research shows that improving walking and cycling pathways can increase physical activity. The study found that features such as tunnels or bridges may discourage some groups from using them. Paths close to public transport increased use, especially during commuting times.
The work will guide decisions on the infrastructure that could further increase the use of these pathways. It supports investment in areas with low levels of active travel since these areas are likely to see the greatest relative increases in activity. The researchers say that some low-cost schemes involving minor changes to improve safety were especially cost-effective.
In the most deprived areas, increased use was associated with high population levels within half a mile. Bridges or tunnels generally increased use in these areas, but increases were less marked among women cyclists.
The researchers say there is a lack of evaluation of pathways. They say that long-term monitoring of use is essential. It can take as long as two years to see behavioural change in the population; monitoring typically would have stopped before then.
The key finding from this research was that building new, better pathways increased physical activity. The study could not say for certain that people had changed their behaviour. It is possible that the increased activity was due to people moving into the areas with new paths. Future long-term research could explore patterns of behaviour.
In this study, the impact of paths was influenced by other elements of the built environment. Proximity to public transport appeared to encourage use by commuters. Where paths went through tunnels or over bridges, the increase in use by women cyclists was less marked than among other groups. Further research could examine the features or locations of paths most likely to motivate people to use them.
The research team is also now investigating how far decision-makers take the wider environment and infrastructure into account when planning new walking and cycling routes.
You may be interested to read
This NIHR Alert is based on: Le Gouais A, and others. A natural experimental study of new walking and cycling infrastructure across the United Kingdom: The Connect2 programme. Journal of Transport & Health 2021;20:100968
Sustrans: The UK cycling and walking charity.
Cycling and walking investment strategy: A policy paper from the UK government.
A paper showing the influence of case studies on decision-makers: Le Gouais A, and others. Sharing believable stories: A qualitative study exploring the relevance of case studies for influencing the creation of healthy environments. Health & Place 2021;71:102615
How to make walking and cycling interventions successful: a 2019 evidence brief from CEDAR (The Centre for Diet and Activity Research) on how interventions work and in which contexts.
Build it and they will come? Study sheds light on how new walking and cycling routes change behaviour - a 2015 news brief from CEDAR on the paper below:
Panter J, and Ogilvie P. Theorising and testing environmental pathways to behaviour change: natural experimental study of the perception and use of new infrastructure to promote walking and cycling in local communities. BMJ Open 2015;5:e007593
High-quality traffic-free routes encourage more walking and cycling - a 2014 news brief from CEDAR on the paper below:
Goodman A, and others. New Walking and Cycling Routes and Increased Physical Activity: One- and 2-Year Findings From the UK iConnect Study. American Journal of Public Health 2014;104:9
Funding: LF is funded and JW is partially funded by the NIHR Global Health Research Group and Network on Diet and Activity.
Conflicts of Interest: The study authors declare no conflicts of interest.
Disclaimer: NIHR Alerts are not a substitute for professional medical advice. They provide information about research which is funded or supported by the NIHR. Please note that views expressed in NIHR Alerts are those of the author(s) and reviewer(s) and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.