Active transport: the case for action

A new report compiled by the Active Transport for Healthy Living Coalition considers the implications of creating an environment conducive to active transport and makes the case for action. In this extract from the report, the coalition explains why the time is right to make the most of the opportunities

Direction of travel: promoting the potential of active transport

“When our streets are transformed into welcoming public spaces, local communities thrive, neighbourhoods become safer, and we all become fitter and healthier.”
Living Streets, 2012 [1]

The evidence base for increasing the uptake of active transport is extensive. The costs to the wider UK economy from traffic congestion, inactivity, carbon emissions and vehicle-derived local air pollution run into tens of billions of pounds every year. Many of the solutions to these problems have some kind of transport-related component. These challenges often require coordinated work between various players, as at their heart lie habitual factors, such as the steady trend towards sedentary lifestyles and a heavy reliance on the private car as a mode of transportation.

Measures to improve uptake of active transport are very often highly cost-effective. The economic benefits to society are extensive, with diverse associated benefits to health and wellbeing, environment and local economies. We now need to adequately reflect these benefits in the form of policy priorities and effective delivery mechanisms for active transport.

High-level government policies do say the right things on this issue: the need for a collaborative approach; cross-government working and support; local emphasis on sustainable transport modes; a long-term behavioural shift to address the looming crises of inactivity and obesity, and all their associated social fallout.

Health, transport, environment, engineering, planning, architectural and cultural sectors, including their respective government departments, user groups, non-governmental organisations (NGO) and now professional institutions have all championed a more overt emphasis and support for schemes to increase the take-up of active transport for shorter journeys.

Active transport investment can be shown to contribute to economic growth, that fundamental bedrock for all current government policy, as is demonstrated in the economy section of this report.

The potential and opportunities are recognised. So what is not happening and why are we an increasingly inactive and obese society still addicted to non-essential use of our cars?

As over 100 public health, transport and environment organisations have said, “The evidence is strong; existing policies are clear; the need is demonstrated and the potential to benefit public health is immense. Nothing here is radical or new, except the call to implement in practice what policies already say.” [2]

We consider that this assertion remains true. Progress on implementing what is clearly recognised has been slow and there is no long-term certainty attached to funding streams, despite the obvious benefits of active travel. 

Case studies from mainland Europe are commonly used to showcase what can be achieved and the economic, social and environmental benefits which may be attained when the public realm is developed around active transport. In many cases this has required decades of investment and commitment, which in turn foster deep appreciation, understanding and expertise amongst those involved with delivery as well as for the end user.

That such cases are upheld as exemplars underlines the validity of a long-term approach and commitment by the governments and authorities involved. The UK needs ambitious and visionary central and local government willing to implement the change we know to be necessary.

We welcome and support the findings of the all-party commission on physical activity, in particular its call for continuity of investment. We are moving in the right direction. We must ensure we actively build, not lose, momentum on this journey.


Key messages and recommendations:

The case is made but active transport needs more champions

The evidence base and policy case for active transport already exist. It is recognised as a means to deliver essential health, sustainable growth and environment objectives. The need is not to make the case for action; the need is to deliver action and to do so in a manner which will ensure widespread successes.

Measures to enable more walking and cycling deliver very high benefit-to-cost ratios. Because they are individually small, they may be less attractive to politicians looking to make statements. Yet in combination, as integrated packages of measures on a regional scale they can be politically significant, popular with the electorate and better value for money than single, large infrastructure schemes.

Turning theory and policy into reality

The Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF) has been a great example and a successful approach to funding sustainable and active transport modes. It ends in 2016 and as yet a successor investment plan has not been identified.

Three things are required to build on the current strong evidence and policy and translate them into a widespread reality:

  1. Top-level political leadership, with a cross-governmental action plan for the expansion of active transport, growth targets and objectives in all the relevant departments, and investment programmes.

  2. Secure, long-term dedicated capital funding streams, top-sliced from allocations to local areas such as the Local Growth Fund, to re-shape our urban realm and allow active transport to become the mode of choice for shorter journeys.
  1. A secure, long-term revenue funding programme, similar to the successful LSTF, enabling major travel behaviour programmes, widespread training and professional development across all the relevant disciplines. This, together with the capital programme, allows for a comprehensive, integrated multi-year work programme to change social norms and individual behaviour.

This activity will deliver extensive wins

The prize for action on active transport is a genuine legacy to society, providing:

  1. a healthier population, with less incidence of non-communicable disease, where activity has become a natural part of people’s everyday lives;
  1. less congested, more attractive and safer urban environments which are valued more by their communities, who are in turn more socially engaged;
  1. stronger local economies where communities work more efficiently and spend more locally;
  1. cost-effective investment for society, delivering pronounced benefit to cost ratios on schemes on a wide scale.

We can help

As professional institutions, associations, and education and delivery organisations, our members are able to assist with necessary training and capacity building to develop the indispensable pool of expertise to ensure that the required initiatives can be delivered on a wide scale.

These recommendations and benefits are recognised and endorsed by the following organisations. We call on all parties to recognise the clear case in their general election manifestos and to work together to deliver the benefits of active transport in the next parliament and beyond.

Active Transport for Active Living is a collaboration of professional institutions and other partner organisations drawn from the spheres of health, engineering, environment, architecture, planning and transport. The coalition comprises:

Chartered Institution for Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM)
Association of Directors of Public Health
Faculty of Public Health
Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA)
Town and Country Planning Association
Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation
Institution of Civil Engineers
Transport and Health Study Group
Chartered Institute of Environmental Health




1 Living Streets. The State of Our Streets report, 2012 [pdf]

2 Sustrans et al. Take Action on Active Travel, 2008 [pdf]


The Leisure Review, Summer 2014

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Download the report The Case for Action by Active Transport for Healthy Living Coalition [pdf]




“The evidence base and policy case for active transport already exist. It is recognised as a means to deliver essential health, sustainable growth and environment objectives.”
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