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This article was first published on the Sustrans website. Sustrans is the UK walking and cycling charity.

Active travel can play a critical role in increasing levels of physical activity. Two recent reports set out why it must be a priority area for improvement in health and social care.

imageFirstly, new guidance from NICE, the National Institute For Health And Care Excellence, highlights five ways in which active travel planning can encourage and support people of all ages and all abilities to be physically active and to move more. This guidance sets out how local strategy, policy and planning, and improvements to the built or natural physical environment such as public open spaces, workplaces and schools support better health through more physical activity. These are:

  • Local authorities and healthcare commissioning groups have senior level physical activity champions who are responsible for developing and implementing local strategies, policies and plans. Champions will raise the profile of physical activity to address local need, including through active travel
  • Local authorities prioritise pedestrians, cyclists and people who use public transport when developing and maintaining connected travel routes.Prioritising people who walk and cycle, as well as those who use public transport, empowers people to make travel choices that help to create healthier places and happier lives for everyone
  • Local authorities involve community members in designing and managing public open spaces. This can include walking and cycling routes through open spaces, and access to open spaces
  • Workplaces have a physical activity programme to encourage employees to move more and be more physically active. Measures can include supporting employees to walk, cycle or use other modes of transport
  • Schools and early years settings have active travel plans that are monitored and updated annually. Plans should be ambitious, and they should be designed to make change happen, primarily by creating a culture of active travel and changing the environment around the schools

Addressing the WHY

The second report that makes the case for why active travel is a priority area for quality improvement in health and social care is a report produced by Sustrans with partners for Sport England. The report presents a definitive case for investing in active travel to support physical activity. Our expert and independent research team reviewed the best quality evidence and found a wide range of effective interventions that increased walking and cycling, with the strongest evidence pointing to joined-up approaches across whole cities and whole towns.

The review identifies the strongest available material by setting a high quality threshold and including only those studies with a control or comparison group. This degree of rigour is not common outside of academia, but the decision to apply this approach for the review was taken in order that the output provides an authoritative overview. The review found 84 studies meeting the criteria within peer-reviewed and ‘grey’ literature drawn from wide-ranging and non-traditional sources internationally. There is strong and substantial evidence that active travel interventions are effective at increasing walking, cycling and physical activity

A number of recommendations emerge from the study. In investing in active travel, priority should be given to: ‘whole system’-type intervention approaches; identifying appropriate combinations of measures that ‘fit’ locally, based on evidence of need and likelihood of impact; encouraging local agencies to promote active transport as part of their efforts to increase physical activity; securing consistent, long-term funding streams; and enabling funding streams that draw on wide-ranging cross-departmental support.

Clear message for governments

There is a great deal of alignment between the NICE guidance and the Sport England review. Between the two reports there is a very strong case for:

  • Approaches that support active travel through environmental change (building safer, better routes and places) and behaviour change (supporting people’s needs)
  • Working across whole towns and cities to support active travel in a range of different contexts that engage everyone and all trip types
  • Ensuring that measures to increase active travel are designed to fit the local need, and that implementation is supported locally
  • Better recognition of the strength of the link between active travel and physical activity, and of the role that this connection can play in supporting health and social care

The message is clear: walking and cycling as well as other forms of active travel, have a vital role to play in making the UK more active. And in order for us to realise the full benefits of more physical activity, active travel must be a priority area for investment in support of improvement in health and social care.

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