What is so off-putting about walking and cycling?
Despite it being one of the easiest ways to build physical activity into daily life, people in mid and later life are less likely to participate in active travel than younger age groups.
In this blog, Aideen Young, Evidence Manager, explores what the barriers and enablers to participating in active travel are for those in mid-life.
Active travel – that is, walking and cycling for transport such as to school, work, for shopping and other local travel needs – is one of the easiest ways to build routine physical activity into daily life. This is a positive habit for many reasons, not least because physical inactivity is one of the most important risk factors for developing those chronic, long-term health conditions that impede our ability to live a good later life.
As a new e-bike owner I can attest to all the motivating factors identified in our latest research ‘Active travel and mid-life' – the freedom from traffic and the frustrations of trying to find parking (not to mention the occasional £60 parking ticket!); the sheer unadulterated pleasure of being outdoors in the fresh air; and getting much-needed exercise. I am now fully embodying the active transport way of life that we are so keen to see for people aged 50 to 70 (an age band in which I am comfortably located); using the bike for all my errands and shopping and rarely moving the car. It has been life-changing.
Of course, I am lucky to live in a part of London with all necessary amenities close by, identified in our research as one of the key characteristics of places where levels of active travel are high. Also important is supportive infrastructure, which in the case of cycling, means dedicated cycle lanes, preferably with “physical separation from motorised traffic”. When that is not the case, traffic, poor driver behaviour and a lack of confidence mean that too many people are just too afraid to engage in active travel, particularly cycling. I can certainly appreciate why people would feel this – I have experienced my fair share of cycle lanes that peter out and disappear; vans parked on the supposed cycle path forcing you out into the flow of traffic; cars turning left across your path on the cycle lane, causing you to slam on the brakes to avoid a collision; and cars encroaching further and further left onto the cycle lane so that you are being squeezed against the kerb. A recent international study puts London just number 43 worldwide for safe cycling (and no other British city even makes it into the top 50).Although this marks a significant improvement in the cycling environment in London, its score of 57/100 falls well short of that of Utrecht, at number 1 with a score of 83/100.
Traffic, poor driver behaviour and a lack of confidence mean that too many people are just too afraid to engage in active travel, particularly cycling.
Still, despite the often-challenging cycling infrastructure, any anxiety I might have about cycling in London is superseded by the fact that I have cycled everywhere I’ve lived since I was a student. And, as shown by our research, having cycled in earlier life and feeling an identity as a cyclist are also important cycling-specific motivators for engaging in active travel in your 50s and 60s.
Our findings are supported by data from the most recent National Travel Attitudes survey. It reveals that off-road and segregated cycle paths, safer roads and well-maintained road surfaces for cycling were chosen by at least half of survey participants (aged 16+) when asked about things that would encourage them to cycle more. In addition, nearly two-thirds (64%) of respondents support the creation of dedicated cycle lanes in their local area, even if this means less road space for cars. That holds promise for the many pop-up cycle paths that have been quickly installed in response to the pandemic and that have been associated with large increases in cycling across a number of European cities.
Of course, active travel means walking too, and our review shows that the things that support someone to walk for travel are not dissimilar to those for cycling – getting exercise, being in the outdoors, feeling independent. Distance, feeling unsafe, declining health or disability and the lack of an active travel habit are all identified as barriers. And when respondents in the National Travel Attitudes survey were asked for things that would encourage them to walk more, well-maintained pavements was the most popular response (74% of respondents) followed by better provision for health needs, for example, benches, public toilets and access ramps (40%); safer roads (45%) and more safer crossing points (44%).
Our report – which summarises all the available evidence about motivators and barriers around active travel for people aged 50 to 70 – gives policymakers lots to go on as they seek to find ways to get the population moving more. As we recover from the impact of the pandemic, it’s clear that this is more important than ever. And stay tuned for the findings of our own research with individuals aged 50 to 70 that we commissioned to fill gaps we identified in the evidence base. We’ll be publishing the findings of that research later this year.