What can local authorities achieve by encouraging walking and cycling?
Air pollution (including particulate matter and nitrogen oxides) is known to be damaging to health. Levels of nitrogen oxides and particulates in parts of England exceeded EU limits in 2010 and addressing this is a growing public health priority (Air pollution in the UK). The Committee on the medical effects of air pollution (COMEAP) estimates that around 29,000 deaths a year are related to air pollution, representing a loss of life expectancy from birth of about 6 months (The mortality effects of long-term exposure to particulate air pollution in the United Kingdom). Local authorities have a duty to work towards improved air quality, and the Environmental Audit Committee ninth report notes that EU fines from failure to comply with air quality targets could be passed on from central government to local authorities. The EAC report notes that 'Transport caused the most exposure to harmful air pollutants, and air quality targets would never be met without a significant shift in transport policy.'
Short journeys play a significant part in the pollution from motor vehicles: 20% of all car-related carbon dioxide emissions are from journeys of less than 5 miles (Low carbon transport: a greener future). Helping people to change to walking and cycling for some of these trips is important in reducing the exposure of the whole population to the effects of air pollution.
The cost of congestion to the economy of England is estimated by the transport select committee's Transport and the economy third report to reach £22 billion a year by 2025. Switching journeys away from private motor vehicles to other modes (including walking and cycling) is the best long term way to reduce congestion. Cyclists, pedestrians and public transport users provide a substantial economic boost to local shopping streets, which can easily be underestimated. A Living Streets survey (Making the case for investment in the walking environment) noted that in a study in Bristol only 22% of shoppers arrived by car – about half the proportion that retailers estimated (41%). Transport for London's Town Centres Survey 2011 found that people walking to a town centre spent an average of £93 per week in the area, compared with £56 for car drivers or passengers. Bus users spent £70 per week. Schemes that encourage walking and cycling are also likely to produce an environment that is highly valued. Improvements to the pedestrian environment can increase residential prices and retail rents (Paved with gold, the real value of street design).
Being inactive is a major health risk, and around 65% of men and 75% of women in England do not achieve the level of physical activity recommended by the Chief Medical Officer (at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week, Start active, stay active: a report on physical activity from the four home countries' Chief Medical Officers). Inactivity is associated with an increased risk of many diseases and conditions, including coronary heart disease, diabetes, obesity and some cancers. Being active can also help maintain mental wellbeing and muscle strength. Physical activity doesn't need to be vigorous to promote health (although vigorous activity is also beneficial). Moderate activity such as brisk walking or cycling is effective. Walking and cycling can fit into daily life to provide regular exercise as well as being a predictable and cheap form of transport for short trips. Being active in older life helps people maintain independence by retaining the ability to carry out activities of daily life, reducing the risk of falling and improving mood and cognitive function.
Changes to transport patterns can also affect health through reductions in air pollution (see the Improve environmental conditions section)