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Transport policy should emphasise health, says BMA

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

John has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.

He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.

Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for Along with founder Tony Farrelly, John was on the launch team for and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.

John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.

He joined in 2013. He lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.

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shrinkinbggaz | 11 years ago

This is great to hear

I have been messaging MP's and Govt for about 12 months now, suggesting ideas like this, I have been met with a stone wall of "no budget, not us, bad idea, etc etc"

So for the BMA to come out and say it can only be great news for all.

Now, maybe the Govt will give me a job as an advisor to the "Obesity Crisis" ...hahah....Doubt it !

OldRidgeback | 11 years ago

The accident rate now is at about the same level as it was in 1948 if I remember my DfT stats correctly. It's worth bearing in mind there are now around 28.5 million registered cars in the UK, compared with 2 million in 1950. The populations has grown and the distances travelled have increased substantially. If you break down the numbers, it's actually safer on UK roads now that it was back then.

WolfieSmith | 11 years ago

The accident rate and 'increased risk' are two separate things.

Even if accident rates dropped to say for instance the rate of 1930 there are so many more cars ( and people) in the UK now that the risk will be higher even if the rate is low.

OldRidgeback | 11 years ago

"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."

Err, the accident rate has actually fallen on the UK's roads.

Carlton Reid | 11 years ago

Good to see running this story. It's a crying shame that no mainstream media outlets have so far done the same.

I happened upon the report because my wife's a doctor and I saw mention of the report in BMA News (with a crappy headline and none of the good stuff in the article). Did BMA send out a press release to its media list, or just let the report wither on the vine?

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