Monday 30th September 2019
Dr Suzanne Bartington – Cycling Champion, Oxfordshire County Council
This event today is very timely – just over a week ago we saw thousands of people, particularly the young, line the streets demanding urgent action to mitigate the unfolding climate crisis.
On Sunday 22nd September we also saw a large number of cities take park in World Car Free Day – an opportunity to reimagine public realm without motorised vehicles.
For increasingly it is recognised that the provision of healthy and sustainable transport options is essential to mitigate the negative effects of the way we move around upon both the environment and our health.
In my own field of public health, I would argue that an active travel focussed approach is vital to tackle our multiple challenges of environmental degradation climate change. Air pollution and physical inactivity.
- Climate Change
For in public health terms, it is only relatively recently we have built ourselves into this situation. Back in 1952, less than 30% of distance travelled in Britain was by car,
Over subsequent decades, cars increasingly relatively affordable compared to other transport alternatives.
Planning and land use policies successively prioritised car mobility over walking, cycling and public transport accessibility.
By 1970, the pattern had reversed, with three-quarters of all passenger miles made by private vehicle, reaching 85% by the late 1980s.
Where I live in Oxfordshire, the number of cars per household is over 1.5 – fitting in all these cars in residential areas is an increasing problem – regularly filling Councillors inboxes with parking problems.
Yet the average car spends about 80% of the time parked at home, is parked elsewhere for about 16% of the time and is thus only actually in use (ive moving) for the remaining 4% of the time. It is exceedingly inefficient in use of time and space.
In addition, most trips made by car are of a short distance, with a third of trips less than 2 miles, which could be taken in just 10 minutes by bike.
This reliance on the private care is damaging both the planet and our own health.
Overall in the UK the transport sector is responsible for around one quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions – almost two thirds of which (62%) is from private cars. Carbon dioxide emissions from road transport has also been the most resistant to reductions, compared to other sectors.
Our overarching imperative to radically mitigate carbon emissions should be driving our transport and planning economic – at local, regional and national levels.
Road transport is also predominantly responsible for toxic levels of harmful pollutants – such as nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter.
These pollutants penetrate deep into the small airways of our lungs, into the cardiovascular system and scientific evidence is unequivocal as to the impacts on almost every organ of the body.
From before birth to old age – with effects including low birth weight, miscarriage, asthma, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and emerging evidence about dementia. Children, the elderly and pregnant women are the most vulnerable.
Diesel was recognised as Category 1 carcinogen nitrogen dioxide as well as being a respiratory irritant contributes to acidification – causing damage to local buildings and ecosystems.
Particulate matter, will not be solved by transition to electric or autonomous vehicles. As acknowledged by the government’s Air Quality Expert Group particles from brake, tyre and road surface wear directly contribute to well over half of particle pollution from road transport.
Those riding bikes are usually exposed to less air pollution than people in cars and buses. Segregated routes reduce this even more, with a distance of just a few metres leading to a reductions in around a quarter.
Cycling is not just quick but also clean, close to zero emission as possible.
3. Physical and Mental Health
And then there are the multiple positive benefits of getting on a bike.
I’m a doctor myself and have seen first hand the consequences of our sedentary modern society. Whether it be Type II diabetes, chronic lung disease or strokes the wider costs of physical inactivity are over £7Bn each year.
We live in a nation where 11 million adults are inactive and over a fifth of children are overweight or obese when they leave school.
The health benefits are estimated at between 13:1 and 415:1 (with an average of 20:1) for life years gained vs years lost. This is truly astonishing. When I teach medical students about benefits of interventions it is usually relatively marginal in comparison – if this were a drug it really would be a wonder pill.
Cycling is relatively low impact, non-weight bearing and is easy to integrate into daily routines.
And it is that integration with transport through utility cycling in daily life, such as to school and work, is an ideal mechanism to improve health outcomes
Yet in many areas these processes are not joined up – planning is separated from public health and health is not integral to planning. We continue to deliver car centric communities which do not encourage or even facilitate behavioural change.
An example I recently learned of a key active travel underpass below a busy main road which was due to be closed off as part of a planning application in a local town. We need a far more proactive process in the health of people is so strongly linked to the environment around them.
Cycling is a more sociable and interactive way to travel – freed up from being cocooned in a driving box.
Able to observe expressions, catch up with friends, immerse oneself in the community around. The changing of the seasons, falling of leaves, the stars which I look at when cycling after dark. Splashing through puddles on a wet day.
This rich, intense sensory experience is infinitely more rewarding than the sanitised car interior devoid of human interaction. It is no surprise that cycling is also good for our mental as well as physical health.
Cycling is also an effective mechanism to improve health equity by enhancing access to local services – GPs, shops, recreational centres. Yet we so frequently fail to achieve the most basic of provision. Take my local GP practice – 3 cycle racks, overgrown with weeds and one broken. These are meant to be health promoting
Time and time again I receive emails about people unable to get to their nearest shop by bike after dark. The nearest shop is down an unviting, unlit and unsurfaced path. There is no signage to the nearest station or indeed to any nearby facilities. Yet less than half a mile away there are illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide – we need to join this up. More roads are simply not an answer.
Cycling is certainly win-win-win – for the environment, the economy for health.
We know that the key market for increasing cycling uptake is everyday trips – shifting those short car journeys to two wheels. This is what drives the high modal shares in Cambridge and Oxford – in Oxford we know that 72% of journeys each week by bike take place within the city. and this is what we need to achieve outside these cities and I believe with the right strategic approach and political commitment we can do it the context of Oxfordshire.
If we were to adopt levels of Holland or Denmark research by Cycling UK shows:
Save the NHS £17 billion within 20 years
• Reduce road deaths by 30%
• Increase mobility of the nation’s poorest families by 25%
• Increase retail sales by a quarter
• Reduce air pollution and save 400 productive life years
• Reduce cycling casualties by 2/3rds
• Saves a third of road space compared to driving
It is for these reasons that a simple solution, on two wheels is right here.
Combined with e-bikes as a game changer the bike can help us unpick the multiple woes we have brought upon ourselves with car usage.
We need to achieve a paradigm shift – to change assumptions about the way we travel.
Placing people at the centre of travel, placing the most vulnerable first rather last, and being politically bold.
Reducing and restricting traffic is crticial as the experience of the Netherlands has shown.
A shift away from isolated schemes towards integrated networks,
We know it can be achieved as it has elsewhere
Political willpower and commitment is absolutely critical. We need champions of cycling at all levels and layers to make this case.
Commissioners with responsibilities to oversee processes and embed this agenda at the heart of the agenda for our towns and cities.
To shift from ‘niche’ to ‘normal’ for travel by foot and bike