Public transport and its implications on health

The recent withdrawal from the Paris climate treaty by the United States is a clear indicator of the climate change scepticism that many people have. There seems to be a growing number of the public who deny the scientific evidence that points towards climate change and the impact humans have on it.

Although there is consensus among the vast majority of climate experts about climate change and its human contributions, a considerable part of the public believes that this is false. This denial can be dangerous and puts essential efforts against climate change at risk, such as the withdrawal from the Paris treaty.

This has implications for many sectors, including transport. There might be a reduced support for interventions that encourage more sustainable and environmentally friendly transport systems. Climate-driven measures often focus on a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Usually, this involves attempts to reduce the dependence on cars and increase the shares of non-motorised and public transport. However, we should not ignore the range of additional benefits of many such interventions. At least in transport, the environmentally friendly measures are also health-friendly, such as encouraging walking and cycling.

Instead of focusing on energy efficiency and many other ‘eco’-measures that relate to the rather abstract concept of climate change, it might be worth focusing more on health. In contrast to climate change, in which the efforts of an individual do not contribute much and of which the results are hardly – if at all – visible, health is a much more personal ‘thing’ and less prone to scepticism regarding its importance. The same solutions can have a higher acceptance rate by the public.

Personal health problems are also a society-wide issue. Being overweight and levels of obesity are an increasing problem in Western countries, which can have serious consequences for a person’s health. At present, about one-in-four adults in the UK suffer from obesity. Thus, physical activity is of great importance for health, and a move towards the use of more active transportation modes, such as walking and cycling instead of driving cars, could significantly contribute to this, in addition to other measures such as a reduction in greenhouse gases.

Public transport is often seen as an active mode as well, since it involves trips to and from the stop or station that are mostly done by walking. Therefore, travelling by public transport can have positive effects on a person’s health. Current research at the University of Birmingham tries to address these walking trips to and from public transport.

Currently, trips to and from public transportation are insufficiently covered by general travel data collection. In public transport planning, generally an acceptable walking distance of 400m is assumed for buses, and 800m for rail transport. However, earlier studies looking at walking distances related to public transport found varying results. In some cases, travellers were found to walk much further than assumed.

The research on walking distances of people who use public transport and how they vary is limited, especially in Europe. Generally, it is found that people tend to walk the most direct routes, although there are also indications that people are willing to walk further if a better walking experience is offered.

The aim of the Birmingham research project is to get deeper insights into the link between public transport and walking in urban areas to promote healthier transport options. The project seeks to find out what the perceived barriers are to walking or using public transport and how walking behaviour varies according to the characteristics of public transport services, the urban environment, and general travel patterns.

Dennis van Soest

Doctoral Researcher, School of Engineering, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Birmingham