Health impact should influence decisions on transport funding says Sustrans Cymru

Sustrans Cymru has urged the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG)to put health issues at the centre of funding decisions on transport schemes to help stave off what it terms the problem of “passive driving,” drawing a parallel with steps that have been taken to fight passive smoking.

The Welsh branch of the sustainable transport charity warns that unless adults and especially children in the Principality are encouraged to walk and cycle more, the NHS risks being swamped in the years ahead as a result of conditions including heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

The news comes as the WAG conducts a review of how competing transport schemes should be appraised and what measures should be employed to determine which ones would prove most beneficial.

According to the website Wales Online, Lee Waters, director of Sustrans Cymru, claims that health issues, particularly those affecting children, currently carry no weight when it comes to assessing where transport budgets should be allocated.

He cited a government report published in England last year which found that the impact of sedentary forms of transport, rather than active ones such as cycling and walking, cost £9.8 billion each year, with transport accidents accounting for a further £8.7 billion and air pollution as a result of traffic £10.6 million.

“On average, we use our cars for just over an hour each day,” Mr Waters said. “The wider effects shown in the English study reveal that we all live with the consequences of this usage 24 hours a day, suffering from what could be described as passive driving, but we have very little choice of alternatives to enable us to reduce this exposure.”

A new report from Sustrans called Changing the Ground Rules urges that funding decisions in relation to all transport schemes in Wales should take the positive and negative impact on health into account.

One aspect it says should be discounted is the small time saving per trip trumpeted by new transport schemes, since once aggregated over for example 60 years, these are used to provide a headline benefit that can overshadow other valid factors that should be taken into account.

Sustrans believes that schemes that would promote physical exercise among children should receive extra points and has urged the WAG to find a means of measuring the positive health attributes of walking.

It is also calling on the government to subtract points in relation to “the physical inactivity that arises from schemes that encourage sedentary travel or reduce the ability of others to be active,” such as improvements to junctions that improve traffic flow but result in cycling or walking as being perceived as slower or riskier.

The charity also wants the WAG to draw up a method of assessing the merits “smarter” travel options, such as car-sharing schemes, which are paid for out of revenue benefits, to provide a comparison with initiatives such as roads and cycle ways that are funded out of capital budgets.

The report also points out a further benefit of putting money into small-scale schemes that promote cycling and walking, saying: “In the time it takes to build a new road, railway or guided bus lane, a behaviour change programme alone, or in combination with some capital investment, could remove the need for large-scale investment.”

John Jenkins, from the British Medical Association Cymru, echoed Sustrans’ views, calling for all government policies to be based on an assessment of their impact on public health.

“It’s very sad that parents feel they can’t let their children free to roam the streets like I did when I was a kid,” he told Wales Online. He added that the provision of safe routes for cycling and walking had an important role to play in reducing accidents and improving health, and that people in Wales needed to be given an alternative to using their cars for short trips.

Although he regularly cycles as part of his commute, Mr Jenkins added that he doesn’t feel safe on his bike. “There’s no cycle route and there’s a lot of traffic on the road. Vehicles come very close to you,” he commented. “I was in Bruges, Belgium, last year and I couldn’t get over the fact that cars stopped for cyclists.”

A spokesman for the WAG told Wales Online: “The Welsh Assembly Government is committed to encouraging people to use alternatives to the car.

“We are the first Welsh Government to spend a greater proportion of our transport budget on sustainable travel rather than roads and will continue to do so even when faced with budget cuts.

“The National Transport Plan reaffirmed our intention to put walking and cycling at the heart of an integrated transport system for Wales. We have directly invested more than £36m over the past three years in walking and cycling schemes.

“Our Safe Routes in the Community programme has invested in infrastructure and schemes to allow schoolchildren to walk and cycle safely to school. Last year we launched our Sustainable Travel Towns programme to develop innovative integrated transport schemes in urban areas.

“In Cardiff a £28.5m joint investment by the Welsh Assembly Government and Cardiff council will be used to create a package of measures to tackle congestion including a free bike hire scheme and new walking routes,” he concluded.

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.