Get on your bike! Why the ‘Active Travel’ concept is failing to improve activity habits

Recent figures published by the UK Department for Transport suggest that we are falling way short of targets set in 2013 to double the number of cycling trips taken per person by 2025. ‘Active Travel’ is regularly used as a buzz-phrase by government organisations to promote physical activity as a means of transport, yet too often, little information is given regarding how and why swapping the car for the bike or walking can be so beneficial for health. The simple fact that cycling accounted for just 2% of all journeys made in the UK last year despite heavy investment in new cycle lanes indicates the failure to convey the correct messages to the general public.

The reasons underlying this issue are clear. You cannot simply tell an individual to ‘get on your bike!’ without full consideration of various contextual factors. An interesting article posed the question as to why changing health behaviour at population level is so difficult.  It might seem obvious that physical activity will benefit your health, however the notion that this should merely be common sense is unlikely to promote sustained behaviour change. If this was the case, tobacco companies would have gone out of business as soon as we understood how harmful smoking is to our health.

Providing a clear, meaningful and easily understood rationale is the first step towards long-term change. Enabling individuals to gain a better understanding of the numerous physical, mental, social and, in this particular case, environmental benefits Active Travel carries will help empower them to make better decisions for the benefit of their health.

To truly understand why the Active Travel movement has failed in it’s attempts to increase physical activity levels, we must look to the preceding conditions. Whilst the benefits of physical activity are widely recognised, its true potential as an effective method of preventing and managing health conditions is yet to be truly appreciated. As Sir Liam Donaldson stated, “If it was medication, it would be regarded as a ‘wonder drug’,” so it remains to be understood why such a powerful tool is not promoted to the public in such a way.

Although we are slowly moving towards a society in which its vast potential is effectively utilised, more must be done to promote the ‘miracle cure’ benefits of physical activity at a population-wide level. We must look to both convey the correct message and empower individuals to self-manage their own physical activity to promote long-term sustained behaviour change.

It is essential to stress that Active Travel is only a single aspect of a healthy active lifestyle. Acknowledging the multi-dimensional nature of physical activity and the independent benefits to health related to each specific dimension is key. Although increasing Active Travel will help an individual reap benefits through achieving improved moderate activity levels and non-sedentary time, other benefits to health can still be gained through numerous other forms of regular activity. It is therefore important not to focus solely on the concept of Active Travel, but rather look to increase all types of activity across various domains in order to see the biggest health improvements.