Research finds traffic-free routes encourage walking & cycling

Pont y Werin over the Ely River looking from Penarth towards Cardiff Bay. A4055 road bridge in left side middle distance. (photo: Andre Neves).
Image as described adjacent

Providing new, high-quality, traffic-free cycling and walking routes in local communities has encouraged more people to get about by foot and by bike, according to a new study led by Cambridge researchers.

Two years after new routes were developed by charity Sustrans with local authorities, people living nearby increased their total levels of physical activity, compared to those living further away. People living 1km (0.6 miles) from the new routes had increased their time spent walking and cycling by an average of 45 minutes per week more than those living 4km (2.5 miles) away.

This amount of walking and cycling could make a substantial contribution to helping people achieve the recommended two and a half hours per week of physical activity. Crucially, when the researchers looked at the total amount of physical activity people did, there was no evidence that gains in walking and cycling were offset by being less active in other ways. This suggests that the new routes have encouraged local people to become more active overall. This is important in that it shows that interventions of this sort not only provide more pleasant routes to travel, but can also play a part in public health efforts to prevent diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions.

The study was led by researchers at the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, and was published in the American Journal of Public Health. The researchers surveyed adults living in three communities before and after they benefited from a national initiative led by the sustainable transport charity Sustrans, and funded by the Big Lottery Fund, to build or improve walking and cycling routes at 84 towns, cities and villages around the UK.

The three communities studied were in Cardiff, where the centrepiece of the project was a new traffic-free bridge across Cardiff Bay; in Kenilworth in Warwickshire, where a new traffic-free bridge was built across a busy trunk road to link the town to a rural greenway; and in Southampton, where a new boardwalk was built along the shore of the tidal River Itchen.

Pont y Werin viewed from the A4055 road bridge. Penarth bank on the right. (photo: Andre Neves)
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All these new crossings then linked into extensive networks of travel routes.

The new findings are another piece in the jigsaw of support for changing the environment in a way that makes walking and cycling safer, more convenient and more attractive. Although it may seem intuitive that improving facilities for walking and cycling will help make the population more active, this has rarely been tested in practice, and most of the existing studies have been done in other parts of the world. This is one of the first studies to show that changing the environment to support walking and cycling in the UK can have measurable benefits for public health.

It is also notable that the researchers did not see a significant effect on activity until the two-year follow-up, which shows that it can take time for the benefits of this sort of investment to be fully realised. The benefits were equally spread between men and women and between adults of different ages and social groups. However, people without access to a car were more likely to increase their activity levels than those who had a car.

There is more about the iConnect study at www.iconnect.ac.uk

Oliver Francis