Research by the Health Foundation has highlighted the link between the quality of our transport and the country’s health. Based on the analysis, the independent charity says that, as the country rebuilds in the wake of the pandemic, there needs to be a shift towards a transport system that better supports a healthy society and addresses widening health inequalities and regional disparities in public health.
As well as considering the negative impacts of transport on health, which include air pollution and road accidents, the research examines the multiple ways in which the transport infrastructure and services can positively impact our health. For example, by promoting active forms of travel – such as walking and cycling – and enabling those aspects of people’s lives that are important for good physical health and mental health – including employment, access to health care, social interaction, and leisure.
Examining the impact of the pandemic, the research notes that national lockdown measures have had a disruptive impact on use of transport. Levels of car use fell to a third of pre-pandemic levels following the first lockdown and public transport use fell even more sharply. However, while use of transport has remained relatively low, car traffic has normalised more quickly than use of public transport.
The analysis also notes that while restrictions have been in place, there has been a clear rise in walking and cycling which the researchers say presents an opportunity for policymakers to further encourage greener and healthier forms of travel by investing further in the infrastructure that supports these activities.
The research reveals that increasing levels of walking and cycling in all regions of England to that of regions with the furthest distance walked or cycled* could prevent 1,189 deaths per year. And if exercise levels increased each week by a combined 30 minutes of cycling and 30 minutes of walking – a relatively small increase across the population as a whole – there would be an annual reduction of around 6,100 deaths.
This analysis, which is based on the World Health Organisation’s HEAT tool, suggests that the majority of this improvement (around 80%) would come from those aged 50 to 74, with the greatest possible improvement in the rate of prevented deaths in the North East and West Midlands given the lower levels of cycling and walking there currently. The South East would see the greatest possible reduction in the number of deaths, mainly due to the larger population in that region.
The research also notes that, while it has been necessary to have restrictions in place on public transport, social distancing measures are likely to be disproportionately impacting workers in lower income households who rely on public transport as their only means of commuting and for whom home working is not feasible.
In 2017/18, around 33% of households in the lowest income quintile didn’t have access to a car, compared to just 5% of households in the highest income quintile. While analysis of the UK Household Longitudinal Study shows that 69% of adults in the top income quintile said that they worked from home at least some of the time in June 2020, compared with only 37% of those in the bottom income quintile.
Among households with the lowest 40% of incomes, the share of people using buses at least once or twice per week and never working from home was 8–9%, compared to 5% in higher income bands.
David Finch, Senior Fellow at the Health Foundation, said:
‘A good transport system is essential for a healthy society. The impact of air pollution on health is well known but transport affects the health of people across society, in multiple ways. Investing in transport is one way we can help address widening health inequalities and regional disparities in people’s health.
‘The investment required to support the UK’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic presents an opportunity to reshape our transport infrastructure and “level up” access. It is essential that the government embeds these aims in new infrastructure projects, to increase safe cycling and walking facilities and to improve the availability, reliability and affordability of public transport services.’
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