Active Travel: A Public Health Issue?

2 people on bikes smiling

As a result of multifaceted benefits to be gained from regular cycling, several parties have called for the health sector to play a greater role in the promotion of active travel (AT). Accordingly, my study explores the standing of AT as a public health issue, focusing on the public health workforce of Greater Manchester (GM). GM was identified as an area of interest because of the unique context presented by two recent ‘devolvement deals’ in health and transport.

42 semi-structured interviews were conducted with members from various tiers of the GM public health workforce in order to understand their views and experiences of AT promotion. This sample was of a purposive nature and targeted the following actors: Directors of Public Health, Public Health Consultants, CCG Leads, Council CEOs, Councillors, Public Health Programme Officers, Sport Development Officers.

What were the results?

(1) The rhetoric for health devolution was heavily focused on a ‘radical shift’ towards illness prevention measures, with physical activity and AT seen as ‘headline’ activities. However, participants questioned the extent to which the public health workforce would be able to lead on this shift, as they anticipated that such work would be constrained by a long-developed ideological bias towards treatment based services. For some, this ideology meant that most public health services had been directed away from what they considered to be ‘true’ public health, and were instead focused on addressing any gaps in frontline treatment work. This was found to impact on the development of prevention based interventions, and in particular, AT promotion, as few were prioritising such work, despite recognising the potential gains.

(2) Anyone wishing to improve AT provisions within their borough were, to a greater or lesser extent, dependent on the views and attitudes of their local councillors. However, public health professionals suggested that there was disparity between evidence-based policy making and the political forms of decision making that councillors had become accustomed to. In particular, it was suggested that councillors prioritised communication with local residents over guidelines and research studies. This concerned those who were more supportive of AT improvements, as there was an awareness that AT is rarely an important issue for the voting public.

What does this mean?

This study suggests that there is currently little pressure on local governments to challenge traditional thinking about transport. This means that, in a time of continued austerity for local government, it is unlikely that local authorities and public health teams are going to be willing, or able, to improve active travel provisions within their locality – without further support (which may need to be much more than funding).

Study at WGU

This research is just one of many examples of how our team delve further afield into the wider determinants of health and wellbeing. Whether you’re interested in a career within the public health, mental health or wellbeing sector, we have a range of undergraduate or postgraduate courses to choose from. You can also sign up to number of health and wellbeing short courses, which will give you a taster for the study area and student life at WGU.

Written by Chris White, lecturer in Health, Mental Health and Well-being at Wrexham Glyndwr University.