Associate feature: Transport is a public health issue, active travel is a public health solution

Written by Lynn Stocks on 27 March 2019 in Comment

Lynn Stocks, Head of Behaviour Change, Sustrans Scotland, on how choosing to walk or cycle for shorter daily journeys is a healthier, greener option for everyone

Image credit: Sustrans

Scotland wants to be an active nation, but we still have some way to go.

Currently, the proportion of people in Scotland meeting the recommended physical activity levels remains at around 64 per cent. This means over a third of people in Scotland are considered inactive.

The 2017 Growing Up in Scotland health report showed that a shocking 90 per cent of Scottish children didn’t get the daily hour of activity they need.

It has been calculated that this level of inactivity costs the NHS in Scotland over £77m per year. 

Lack of exercise isn’t the only danger to the nation’s wellbeing. Recent evidence from Public Health England, about the dangers of air pollution, shows that particulates (Pm) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) from vehicles contribute in up to 36,000 early deaths each year in the UK. 

But just as some transport choices can create public health problems, choosing to walk or cycle for shorter daily journeys is a healthier, greener option for everyone.

Internationally, public health and activity research cites replacing car journeys with those made actively is considered one of seven best investments for increasing levels of physical activity.

We need to work together to make walking and cycling not only easier but the quickest and most convenient way to travel from A to B.

To tackle physical inactivity, traffic volume and car dependency we need innovative programmes to create a cultural shift in behaviours.

And if these programmes can be introduced from childhood, they can create healthier life-long habits. 

Scottish Household Survey data on commuting indicates that 21 per cent of journeys were made on foot, while 2 per cent were cycling.

However, almost two-thirds of respondents reported that they usually drive or are passengers in a car/van.

Yet if we look at the school run in Scotland, the annual Hands Up Scotland Survey finds 42.3 per cent of pupils walking and 6.5 per cent cycling or scooting to school.

If we can sustain these levels of active travel into adulthood it would be hugely beneficial for the entire nation.

At Sustrans Scotland, we are working with the Scottish Government and partners in local authorities and the NHS to deliver programmes that tackle the school run and daily commute.

This year, we celebrate a decade of our flagship education programme, I Bike.

What started in just twelve schools in Edinburgh is now in 375 schools across Scotland, engaging with more than 463,000 pupils since it was launched ten years ago.

I Bike officers work closely with school pupils, parents and volunteers encouraging children to be more active, teaching vital skills and confidence in cycling, and helped to increase the number of girls travelling actively to school.

Over the next 10 years we hope to see even more local authorities, schools and volunteers signing up to our programme to help children lead healthier, independent and more active lives.

Sustrans Scotland also runs several programmes connecting with employers and workplaces via initiatives such as the Scottish Workplace Journey Challenge and the Bike Library.

In addition, a recent example of an innovative intervention is our partnership with the NHS to increase active and sustainable travel for NHS staff. A dedicated officer has been embedded within NHS Highland and NHS Dumfries & Galloway.

These officers work with staff and seek to understand, and then overcome, the barriers to walking and cycling by offering a suite of behaviour change opportunities. They have also worked to integrate Active Travel principles into the core business of the NHS.

Not only does this help improve health and wellbeing, alongside the hospital environment, but helps NHS staff set an example to patients while providing a deeper understanding of how active travel can be part of the person-centred approach, which seeks to highlight prevention as a vital component of clinical care.

It’s early days, but if we work together to make walking, cycling and wheeling part of everyday life there’s a brighter future ahead for all of Scotland.

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