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Cycling infrastructure a big part of the solution

The British Medical Association (BMA) is calling on the government to put health rather than simple economics at the heart of transport policy. In a new report 'Healthy transport = Healthy lives', the BMA points out that current policy emphasises provision of motor vehicle facilities over active transport and public transport, with long-term negative effects on the nation's health.

Bringing together the latest research into the effect of transport policy on health, the report aims to demonstrate to policy makers that integrating health into transport planning will have long-term health benefits for society.

It's not the first time the BMA has been here. 'Healthy transport = Healthy lives' is an update on the BMA’s 1997 publication 'Road Transport and Health'. There has been little change to transport policy since the 1997 report, says the BMA, and the detrimental impacts on health continue.

Over the last 60 years, traffic has steadily increased, says the BMA, with associated negative impacts on health. These include the increased risk of road traffic accidents and greater exposure to air and noise pollution. The increased use of cars has also had the unintended result of far fewer people in the UK walking and cycling.

Active travel such as riding and walking, on the other hand, has many health benefits including improved mental health, a reduced risk of premature death, and prevention of chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, depression, dementia, and cancer.

Merely telling people they should ride or walk doesn't help much though. “Promotion of cycling alone is insufficient to increase uptake.” says the report. What works, according to the BMA, is provision of specific facilities, and for once the evidence isn't just from the Netherlands and Denmark, but from closer to home: London.

Cycling as a mode of transport has decreased dramatically over the last 60 years. Research from the Department for Transport (DfT) has shown that of all trips made in the UK each year, trips made by cycling account for only 2 per cent of journeys (an average of 73 miles cycled).

In London, bike use has risen over the last couple of decades, thanks in part  to London having a higher standard of cycling infrastructure and continual investment. “If cycling infrastructure is well integrated into the built environment, there is demand and scope for cycling levels to increase,” says the BMA.

The BMA is careful not to appear to be anti-motorist. Rather, the report suggests that people should be encouraged to walk and ride by improvements in infrastructure. “The focus should be on developing an environment where travelling actively or by public transport is asefficient and effective as travelling by car.”

The Government needs to show strong leadership “to re-focus transport policy in the UK. Prioritising accessibility over mobility will encourage a modal shift towards transport behaviours with the greatest health benefits.”

The report sets out a detailed programme of changes that would help get people moving under their own steam, and sets out the benefits, which are not just to health. "Active forms of transport, such as cycling and walking, are highly cost effective... To the individual, walking has few costs associated with it, while the costs associated with cycling are minimal compared to those of motorised transportation. ... Transport-related physical inactivity in England is estimated to cost £9.8 billion per year to the economy. This figure is in addition to the £2.5 billion in healthcare costs spent annually on treating obesity.

"A 2007 Cycling England report that estimated the economic value of cycling, found that the health benefits could be valued at £87-300 per cyclist per year, depending on their age, fitness level, and neighbourhood.”

The full report is a 122-page PDF, with lots of well-argued detail. Cycling advocate Carlton Reid has a deeper analysis of the BMA's recommendations over on bikehub.co.uk.

Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.

Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.

Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.

The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.