Active travel: good for body, mind and the environment

Woman on a bike cycling through the park
Photo by Blubel on Unsplash

Dr Madeleine Morris, Research Associate at the Grantham Institute, blogs on why walking and cycling is the way forward when it comes to local travel.

As the UK begins to emerge from lockdown, there has been much discussion about how we travel within our towns and cities, particularly for those who are returning to work. The Government is urging everyone to avoid public transport wherever possible to limit the spread of COVID-19, and to instead take alternative forms of transport. However, if everyone who normally took public transport were to jump in their cars there would be serious problems; cities could come to a standstill, pollution levels would rise significantly, and there could be an increase in injuries to road users and pedestrians alike.

‘Active travel’ – i.e. taking journeys by physically active means, like walking and cycling – is an excellent option for many people. It can reduce the risk of spreading viruses and has multiple benefits for the climate and public health. Local authorities across the UK are transforming streets to make them more accessible for pedestrians and cyclists. The Mayor of London, for example, has launched Streetspace, which aims to widen pavements and give much more space to new cycle lanes. So, there’s never been a better time to start!

I started cycling to work about five years ago because my commute was crowded, expensive and frequently delayed by late running or cancelled trains. The direct benefits for me were a more reliable and pleasant commute at a fraction of the cost, but since then I’ve taken note of the many other benefits, both direct and indirect, that come with active travel.

Big climate benefits

Road transport is responsible for around a fifth (21%) of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Switching to active travel modes, even for some of our journeys, is one of the most immediate and accessible ways to address this.

Better use of space

The average car is stationary for 95% of its lifespan. Fewer cars on the road means less space required to park them, so more land can be devoted to green space. ‘Parklets’, small parks that take the place of one or two parking spaces, can bring green space to our roadsides and urban areas. This would not only improve air quality but also help build community spirit by providing areas for people to come together on their doorsteps.

These green spaces can even help to keep cities cool and reduce flood risks by absorbing excess rain water. Implementing them at a larger scale, then, could help cities adapt to extreme weather made worse by climate change.

Cyclists and pedestrians on Waterloo Bridge
Cyclists and pedestrians on Waterloo Bridge (c) DesignSensation

Cleaner air

Air pollution is the fourth biggest killer in the world, contributing to more than six million deaths every year. It is estimated that, on average, four Londoners – including one child – are hospitalised every day due to asthma caused by air pollution. Although avoiding roads with heavy traffic is beneficial, even London’s green spaces are affected by pollution. More than a quarter of the city’s parks, playgrounds and open spaces exceed international safety limits for air quality.

This puts huge pressures on our health- and social-care services. If we don’t reduce pollution levels, the costs to the NHS and social care in England alone could reach as much as £18.6 billion in the next 15 years. Now, more than ever, the importance of reducing pressures on these essential services has been made clear.

Switching to active modes of travel like walking and cycling are simple ways that many of us can contribute to cleaning up the air in our communities.

Good physical health

As well as allowing us to breath cleaner air, walking and cycling benefits our physical health by keeping us active. Many of us increasingly spend most of our time sitting down (especially at work), yet long-term physical inactivity has been shown to have negative effects on our health. Research shows that people who cycle to work, could reduce their chances of early death and cancer diagnoses.

In fact, the health benefits of cycling are so great that they outweigh any negative impacts of being more exposed to air pollution from surrounding vehicles. For me, an added bonus is that travelling by bike frees up time I would otherwise (begrudgingly) put aside to ‘do exercise’ to stay healthy. Who doesn’t love having more free time?

Healthy body, healthy mind

The last couple of months have shown us how important it is to take care of not just our physical health, but our mental health and wellbeing. Avoiding public transport could leave us feeling out of control and stranded from our friends, families and activities we enjoy. Cycling and walking can help us stay connected and, at the same improve our health. A study of seven European cities found that people who cycle in cities have better mental health, and feel less stressed and lonely, than those who travel by car or public transport. And it’s better for the planet.


For more on active travel, check out my top tips to get on your bike and enjoy cycling in the city.

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