This section covers NIHR funded research into the impact of active travel and public transport on physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight. Active travel means making everyday journeys in physically active ways, such as by walking or cycling, instead of using cars, motorbikes or other motorised transport (Public Health England). Public transport is often linked to active travel, since people walk or cycle to access it.
What’s the context?
The growth in road transport has contributed to reducing physical activity and increasing obesity. Switching more journeys to active travel promises to improve health, quality of life, the environment, air pollution, and local productivity, as well as reduce costs to the public purse (Public Health England).
The COVID-19 pandemic created a national ‘moment of change’ to promote cycling and walking (Department for Transport). In 2020, the number of people cycling on public highways was higher than any year since the 1960s (Minister of State for Transport). A drive to cement these behaviours underpinned the government’s vision for cycling and walking (Department for Transport). New working patterns, with a move to hybrid working, may present different challenges and opportunities for active travel.
What does NIHR research tell us?
Active travel (walking or cycling) to school can lower children’s BMI
A study tracked more than 8,000 schoolchildren for several years and found that those who switched to walking and cycling to school between the ages of 7 and 14 had healthier body weights (BMI) than those who continued to travel by car. This was seen particularly in children from the most deprived areas.(1)(NIHR Alert)
Improved walking and cycling paths increase active travel, particularly when they connect to transport hubs
Improving the quality and quantity of walking and cycling paths can increase active travel and the number of people meeting physical activity guidelines. New walking routes encouraged less active people to take up walking for transport,(2) reduced health inequalities, and provided value for money.(3)(NIHR Alert) The greatest uptake of active travel was on routes: near public transport hubs; where walking and cycling use was low; in areas of deprivation and high population density.(3) Routes were more likely to be successful when accessibility and connectivity (convenience) were taken into account.(4) For example, people living close to a new bus network and traffic-free pedestrian and cycle paths were more likely to increase their active travel and cycling time, and decrease their car trips. This is compared to people living further from the bus route. People who were less active originally were most likely to change their behaviour and increase their active travel.(5)
Improving safety and the experience of cycling and walking influences the use of routes
Successful programmes to promote walking and cycling address the issues of traffic and personal safety, and improve the experience of walking or cycling.(4) For example, a new or improved bridge or tunnel can increase the use of walking or cycling paths in deprived areas. These features may not appeal to everyone; the number of women cyclists was less likely to increase where there were bridges or tunnels, possibly because these features reduce natural surveillance and feelings of safety.(3)
School cycle training does not increase the likelihood of cycling in adolescence
Offering cycle training in primary school has not been found to increase the likelihood of cycling in adolescence (13 to 15 years). Cycling has been found to be more common among teenage boys than girls, in rural areas, and in areas with higher levels of adult cycling.(6)
Encouraging the use of public transport can support a healthy weight and increase physical activity
Use of public transport is associated with a lower BMI in adults,(7) and switching from private car to public transport for school journeys has been associated with lower percentage body fat in children.(1) Free bus passes for people over 60, (8) including those from minority ethnic groups (9) can promote active travel. But free bus travel for young people (12 to 17 years) in London did not significantly increase active travel. However, teens reported wider benefits, such as more independent travel and social inclusion.(10)
Sport England offers tools and resources to support active travel.
NIHR research in progress
How does new walking and cycling infrastructure support a shift to active travel among commuters and older adults in market towns? (11)
Do new low traffic neighbourhoods increase active travel? (12)
What impact did emergency travel schemes have on active travel and social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic? The schemes included pedestrianised high streets, new cycle lanes, low traffic neighbourhoods and the temporary closure of roads outside schools. The research will inform decisions over whether to make the schemes permanent. (13)
The mission of the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) is to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research.NIHR Evidence is managed by NIHR with a funding contribution from Health and Care Research Wales, Welsh Government.