‘Pushing at an open door’: Taking advantage of the shifts in active travel during the pandemic
During the pandemic, quieter roads and the rapid deployment of infrastructure led to an increase in cycling. It’s crucial that we continue this increased uptake in active travel for 50-70 year olds.
We recently published the findings of our research with people aged 50–70, examining their experiences of active travel. This research aimed to identify the barriers and enablers of active travel in this age group so that we might better understand how to encourage more active travel as a means to greater physical activity. In a neat illustration of the role of both qualitative and quantitative research in illustrating social trends, here we take a look at the ways in which new statistics for England from the National Travel Survey (NTS) support many of the stories that emerged from our qualitative research project.
The pervasiveness of our car culture
The pervasiveness of our car culture, whereby travelling even a short distance by car is viewed as normal, was a theme of our research. This comes through clearly in the NTS data too: in England in 2020, 84% of people of all ages used a private car at least once a week compared with 20% who said they used a bike and 19%, a local bus. Indeed, of all trips made by people aged 50–69 in England in 2020, 64–66% were in a car (either as the driver or as a passenger).
Walking is the preferred mode of transport after the car
As we saw in our research, walking is the preferred mode of transport after the car: between the ages of 30 and 69, the proportion of people who walk for 20 minutes or more at least 3 times a week ranges from 60% (in the 60–69-year age group) to 67% (in the 50–59-year age group). This proportion then falls quite substantially – to 50% – among people over 70. And the proportion of people in all age groups who walk for at least 20 minutes at least 3 times per week is much higher than the proportion who walk less frequently. For example, just 18% of 60–69 year olds walk once or twice a week compared with the 60% who walk at least 3 times week. Policymakers should capitalise on this age group’s interest in walking for leisure so that it can be extended to walking for purposeful travel.
Walking is the most frequent mode of transport for short trips
Walking is the most frequent mode of transport for short trips – though the definition of what constitutes 'short' is key in shaping whether a journey gets walked or not. In England in 2020, 82% of trips under one mile were walked while 16% were by car. But as the journey gets a little longer, this changes: almost a third (31%) of all trips under 2 miles were by car. And a full 59% of car trips in 2020 were for distances of less than 5 miles. In our primary research, journey distance and how long it takes to complete also came through as key determinants of how people choose to travel. Among our study participants who undertake at least some active travel, 1.5 miles or 20–30 minutes was often the maximum they would consider walking.
Walking is far more popular than cycling in all age groups
With distance such a limiting factor in whether people will walk, cycling – allowing longer distances to be covered more quickly – would appear to present a good alternative. But just as in our primary research, the NTS data shows that walking is far more popular than cycling in all age groups, including in mid- and later life: while 64% of all trips made by people aged 50–59 were by car, 26% were by walking and just 3% by bike. The data also demonstrates the large difference in cycling behaviour between men and women that we saw in our research: while men aged 50–59 made 37 cycling trips on average in 2020, dropping to 27 among men aged 60–69 and then to 22 among men aged 70+, the corresponding figures for women were 16, 18 and 0, respectively.
Our research identified a number of reasons for the preference for walking over cycling: the perception that greater physical ability and fitness levels are needed for cycling; a lack of cycling ability (some people – more often women than men – had never learned or hadn’t cycled for several decades); worries about safety (including busy roads and a lack of dedicated cycle paths); and no access to a working bike. Indeed, the NTS data shows that more than half of people aged 50–59 (54%) and almost three-quarters of those aged 60+ (74%) don’t have a bike to use at all. These barriers to cycling that we identified in our research led us to recommend that local commissioners and service providers should develop and pilot affordable bike hire schemes (including for e-bikes about which our study participants had little understanding).
The most common trips that people of all ages make are for commuting, shopping and visiting friends
The NTS data also shows that the most common trips that people of all ages make are for commuting, shopping and visiting friends, though their relative importance changes with age. Of all trips made by people aged 50–59, 21% were for shopping and 18% for commuting. Among people aged 60–69, 27% of all trips were for shopping, increasing to 36% among over 70s. The length of the average shopping trip is a mere 3.7 miles; yet they were most often done by car (22% of all car trips made were for this purpose compared with 11% of all cycling trips).
Shopping was regularly mentioned in our primary research too, with lack of opportunity, one of the biggest barriers to active travel that we identified; people simply live too far away from shops and other services for active travel to be a realistic option. And those shops that people can reach also have to meet their needs and preferences, otherwise people will simply drive further afield to others that they like better. Hence, proximity to amenities, inherent in the 20-minute neighbourhood, is a necessary condition of engaging in active travel.
We are ‘pushing at an open door’ when it comes to active travel
The pandemic took many people away from public transport, while quieter roads and the rapid deployment of cycling infrastructure led to an increase in cycling that is evident in the NTS data. For example, the average annual number of trips by bike taken by 50–59-year-old men more than doubled from 18 in 2019 to 37 in 2020.
And yet there was no change in number of cycling trips made between 2002 and 2019. So, while the historical data suggests that there is a lot of work to do to improve uptake of cycling as a mode of active transport, the shift seen in the last year shows that it can be done, and what’s required now is to enact policies and initiatives that allow the 2020 uptick to be maintained and then to be increased even further. This will require the design of neighbourhoods with features that encourage active travel – especially cycling, which people are less likely to engage in than walking. This means well-maintained paths, cycle-paths that are separate from traffic and well-connected paths, streets and spaces that allow people to easily complete their journeys.
The NTS data for 2020, like our research project, suggests that we are ‘pushing at an open door’. But we need prompt action from a range of actors across the public, private and voluntary sector, local health systems and employers, so that this opportunity is not missed.