Published: 4th JANUARY 2021

Safe walking and cycling infrastructure reduces health inequalities

Evidence shows that walking and cycling can play a vital role in supporting healthy life expectancy. Our Director of Insight, Andy Cope, explores the latest research on how safer walking and cycling infrastructure can improve the population's health and reduce inequalities.

A group of people walking down the street together chatting and laughing

the construction of safe walking and cycling routes at scale can improve population health and reduce health inequalities.

It emphasises the importance of safe walking and cycling routes in supporting physical activity among disadvantaged groups.

The research by at the University of Cambridge and the at the University of the West of England is published in the .

Better routes support more physical activity

The findings are very clear that creating new walking and cycling routes or improving existing routes will support physical activity in groups for which exercise can fall below the recommended levels.

This includes supporting physical activity among older people, people living in deprived areas and people living with a disability or long-term illness.

A further important finding is that when walking and cycling routes are built or improved in areas where levels of walking and cycling are low, relative increases in levels of physical activity can be large.

This research is important because it spells out the role that walking and cycling can play in responding to Covid-19 and in addressing the wider ‘levelling-up’ agenda.

Man wearing sunglasses and a cycle helmet, sitting on his tricycle smiling and laughing.

The recent landmark reports by the (‘’ and ‘’, both commissioned by the ) spell out how walking and cycling can help address both health inequalities and pandemic response.

The ‘ten years on’ report spells out how improvements to life expectancy have stalled, and details how the health gap has grown between wealthy and deprived areas.

Increased investment is needed to address health inequalities

The Covid-19 report details how inequalities in social and economic conditions before the pandemic contributed to the high and unequal death toll from Covid-19.

And it sets out why investment in public health needs to be increased to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on health and health inequalities, and on the social determinants of health.

On walking and cycling:

"The provision of policies for equitable active travel such as cycling and walking is highly important … to reduce health inequalities; …active travel improves physical health and mental health as a result of the physical activity".

Walking and cycling play a vital role in increasing life expectancy

The new research shows that walking and cycling can play a vital role in supporting healthy life expectancy and narrowing health inequalities.

Active travel is also crucial to the ongoing Covid-19 response and could be key to leaving us better placed to address future health emergencies.

If we are serious about ‘levelling-up’, walking and cycling must be a priority investment area throughout the UK.

Research on the impact of building new walking and cycling routes

You can read the full paper, A natural experimental study of new walking and cycling infrastructure across the United Kingdom: The Connect2 programme

The research is derived from the Connect2 programme and is conducted by members of the research consortium.

We secured £50 million of investment from the (now The National Lottery Community Fund) in 2008.

Safe walking and cycling schemes were delivered in 84 locations UK-wide between 2009 and 2013. 

We worked with dozens of stakeholders, including local government, statutory and non-statutory bodies and local community groups, to raise matched funding against the original award and deliver the schemes on the ground.

The overall investment in the Connect2 programme was £175 million.

Read our recent blog where we take a look at what we need to do to ensure equity, inclusion and social justice truly exist in walking and cycling.

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