More walking and cycling is “crucial to improving the health of the nation,” says England’s Chief Medical Officer

In her annual report on the state of England’s health, the Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, has revealed that overweight is becoming the norm, and suggested a sugar tax may be needed. She also identifies active travel as “crucial to improving the health of the nation and reducing the prevalence of obesity”.

Responding to the report, Sustrans’ Health Director, Philip Insall, said:

“Government needs to heed Dame Sally’s warning that too few of us are achieving the necessary levels of physical activity, particularly when it comes to young people.

“Walking or cycling everyday journeys, such as the school run, is an easy way to incorporate that healthy physical activity into the daily routine, and every time public health experts talk of the inactivity crisis they repeat this. Addressing unhealthy diet, such as through sugar or fat taxes, should of course be allied to measures which make physical activity much easier to choose. It really is critical that government establishes sustained, dedicated funding programmes to make active travel the natural choice where we live, work and go to school.”

The mainstream media has focussed on the anti-obesity message in the Chief Medical Officer’s report, but she stresses that active travel can play a huge part in making people healthier, but the Government must do more to make roads safer for cyclists and pedestrians.

She said:

“I believe that encouraging more people to engage in active travel, such as walking and cycling, is crucial to improving the health of the nation and reducing the prevalence of obesity. I am therefore concerned to see that between 2003 and 2012, the average number of miles travelled on foot per person in Great Britain has fallen by 10%, and that cycling accounted for less than 1% of all miles travelled in 2012. However, this national figure conceals some considerable local variation: In 2012, 30% of journeys to work by Cambridge residents were by bicycle, with 47% cycling at least once per week.

“In order to improve uptake, we need to improve safety. The relative risk associated with journeys by active travel methods are unacceptably high and must be reduced. Compared with travelling the same distance by car, the risk of death from travelling one kilometre on foot or by bicycle is more than 17 times higher. The risk of serious injury for each kilometre travelled is almost 16 times higher on foot than by car, and 21 times higher on a bicycle than by car.

“An integrated approach to improving safety for all road users must be taken. The high number of journeys undertaken by bicycle in Cambridge may be partly linked to the extensive network of cycling routes separated from traffic: there is limited evidence that physically separating cycle networks from motorised traffic may reduce risks for cyclists.

“It is important, however, that we also protect pedestrians. An improved understanding of methods to improve road safety for all modes of transport and how these can be applied to the road system in England would be beneficial.”

British Cycling’s campaigns manager, Martin Key, said:

“Today’s report by the chief medical officer highlights the vital need for cycling to be prioritised as a form of transport. From our research we know that almost two thirds people would travel more by bike if cycling was accommodated in road design.

“As this report makes clear, the health benefits of cycling through improved fitness outweigh the risks by 700%. To overcome this we need to transform our towns into people friendly places with safe, separated bike lanes which link people to the places they want to go. Cities like Cambridge, where almost a third of people cycle to work, are real life examples of how cycling can be made safer as well as a viable, attractive alternative to driving.

“Politicians and local leaders need to listen carefully to this advice. Research we commissioned from Cambridge University has shown that even a modest increase in trips made by bike would save the NHS in excess of £2.5 billion over the next decade. The way forward is clear: we just have to choose cycling.”

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