Physical activity is a key part of ensuring we stay healthy. Achieving sufficient levels of activity can help to reduce the risk of chronic diseases (such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes) and help to prolong our activity into older life.
In Sheffield, a quarter of adults do less than 30 minutes of physical activity every week, well below the UK Chief Medical Officer’s guidance of 150 minutes. For children, where expectations of physical activity are higher, the guidance suggests at least 60 minutes per day. However, only a third of children achieve this; 42 percent were active, on average, for less than 30 minutes per day. These figures underline how important it is that we build activity into our daily lives in different ways.
Active travel, which includes walking, cycling and other modes of travel that require physical exertion, offers a valuable way to achieve the levels of physical activity needed to help protect health. Active travel can further enhance public health by reducing levels of air and noise pollution; it can also boost the economy by reducing congestion and levels of absenteeism amongst employees.
Embedding active travel as a key part of the health promotion agenda is an important way to tackle health crises, such as the UK’s obesity epidemic. It also has a role to play in preventing disease and enabling people to live healthy and active lives into their later years. However, the health benefits of active travel are not currently being fully realised. Whilst participation has increased, inequalities have also widened. Between 2010-18 there was only a 5 percent increase in walking trips per year for those on the lowest incomes compared to a 14 percent increase for those on the highest incomes.
Barriers to uptake
There are a number of systemic barriers to realising the full potential of active travel. The design of our towns and cities still primarily favours cars. For example, the location of shopping and employment opportunities, such as retail and business parks, on the outskirts of towns and cities pushes people to rely on their own vehicles. Public transport opportunities to these locations are often limited, and active travel even more so.
Many people are also deterred from using active modes due to safety concerns resulting from limited or poor-quality infrastructure. For instance, a recent survey we conducted as part of the Room to Move project, which looked at travel behaviour before, during, and after the first UK wide lockdown showed that 57 percent of respondents felt that improved or segregated cycle lanes was the most important factor in encouraging them to cycle more.
Our survey also showed the role of the pandemic as a potential catalyst for change. Whilst some respondents have returned to, or even increased use of private transport, more people now use active travel modes as part of their journeys than they did prior to the pandemic. It remains very much at a tipping point whether in a post-COVID world, active travel becomes the option of choice or if increased numbers of people a drawn to the perceived safety of the car.
Despite the potential that the pandemic is changing attitudes around active travel, the barriers outlined above still exist and must be overcome. Prior to the pandemic local and national governments had been increasingly recognising the benefits of active travel, but progress has been slow, largely due to limited funding. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced government to act, with increased powers and funding given to local authorities to rapidly deliver active travel measures.
Gaps in evidence and the challenges moving forwards
Several gaps in the evidence base around active travel and health exist, which are also a barrier to its uptake and embedding in policy. These include understanding how to engage communities experiencing inequalities; knowing more about what works, for whom and in what circumstances, including rural and semi-rural areas; understanding the effectiveness of active pilots and innovations, including the balance between behaviour change interventions and infrastructure investments; and value for money, including if, when and how investment in active travel is cost-effective.
For policymakers, a key challenge is in delivering a coherent and joined up plan for active travel. A disparate and inconsistent funding pipeline has historically restricted this but if central government continues to loosen the purse strings this may become more feasible. The benefits of active travel for health are clear but often the evidence base around the wider impact of specific measures and interventions is underdeveloped. Underpinning investments in active travel with effective monitoring and evaluation is a further important step for policy makers to help address challenges moving forwards.
These issues and further insights on our work on this topic were the themes we explored in a recent Festival of Social Science event – A Healthy and Active Sheffield: What role for active travel? It also included a contribution from Dame Sarah Storey, the Sheffield City Region (SCR) Active Travel Commissioner alongside a wide-ranging discussion amongst the attendees, which was chaired by Prof Steve Haake, the Chair of the SCR Active Travel Advisory Board.
A recording of the online event can be accessed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=irIH07KFVOM.
 Active Lives Survey: Adults surveys, Main report: Tables 1-3 Levels of activity. Available at: https://www.sportengland.org/know-your-audience/data/active-lives/active-lives-data-tables?section=adult_surveys.
 Department of Health and Social Care (2019) UK Chief Medical Officers’ Physical Activity Guidelines. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/832868/uk-chief-medical-officers-physical-activity-guidelines.pdf.
 Active Lives Survey: Children and Young People surveys, Main report: Tables 1-3 Levels of activity. Available at: https://www.sportengland.org/know-your-audience/data/active-lives/active-lives-data-tables?section=children_and_young_people_surveys.
 Health Equity in England: the Marmot Review 10 years on (page 122)
 Cavill N, Davis A, Cope A, Corner D, 2019, Active Travel and Physical Activity Evidence Review. Sport England.