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Are car-free strategies the answer to the UK public health crisis?

Collaborating on walking can lead to excellent health outcomes. The walking programme was disproportionately beneficial to those in areas of most need, where physical inactivity and childhood obesity rates were highest

03 March 2020


At the start of a new decade, figures surrounding our public health are startling. Physical inactivity is responsible for 1 in 6 deaths in the UK (the same statistic for smoking), air pollution causes up to 41,000 premature deaths every year, and obesity rates have doubled to 13 million in the past 20 years. In recent times, walking has been dubbed a ‘miracle cure’ but can something as simple as walking really answer the growing public health crisis?

Collaborating on walking can lead to excellent health outcomes. For most people, becoming more active starts with physical activity that can be easily incorporated into everyday life; walking is the most common sporting activity by adults in Britain, and cycling comes in fourth. 

Stephen Edwards, Director of Policy and Communications, Living Streets, will be speaking at the Public Health and Sustainable Transport Summit in March

Science tells us that walking is good for our bodies and minds. It makes us physically healthier, which in turn helps people tackle chronic diseases associated with inactivity. Walking more contributes to an important modal shift, too. If we all chose to walk local, everyday journeys, it would ultimately lead to fewer cars on the road and less toxic air pollution. By implementing successful car-free strategies, we can all achieve excellent health outcomes. 

Perhaps most importantly, establishing healthy habits at a young age is key. Living Streets, the UK charity for everyday walking, runs the leading walk to school behaviour-change programme. Now in its 20th year, the year-round WOW challenge, is designed to increase physical activity whilst tackling congestion at the school gate. 

Children record how they get to school each day with the interactive WOW Travel Tracker. Those who walk, scoot, cycle or ‘Park and Stride’ at least once per week for a month are rewarded with a themed WOW badge. With the help of the programme, an average of 23 per cent more children walk to school and cars outside the school gates are reduced by almost a third. 

Living Streets works with thousands of schools across the country, and recently teamed up with Oxfordshire County Council’s Public Health team and Active Oxfordshire to incorporate the initiative into the county. The need for the charity’s flagship WOW challenge was evident as statistics showed a fifth of Oxfordshire’s Reception-aged children were overweight or obese, rising to nearly a third by Year 6. The figures were significantly higher for BAME children and those living in deprived areas. 

The collaborative effort between the charity, local authority and an active partnership produced significant results. After incorporating WOW into children’s daily routines, figures showed 5,000 pupils and their families regularly switched to healthier and cleaner ways to travel, whilst walking rates rose from 47% to 61% in 18 months. 

Rich Kuziara from Oxfordshire County Council's Public Health Team says: 'Before we started WOW, 31% of pupils at participating schools were driven. 18 months later and this was down to 11%, with 88% of journeys now being recorded as active.'

The programme was disproportionately beneficial to those in areas of most need, where physical inactivity and childhood obesity rates were highest. At St Leonards Primary School in Banbury, WOW resulted in 35 per cent more children walking some or all the way to school, by March 2019. This area has one of the lowest life expectancies in Oxfordshire and rates of inactivity and obesity are significantly above the national average. These findings support Sport England’s research that people in deprived areas and BAME communities rely much more heavily on day-to-day activities such as utility walking to meet physical activity guidelines.

The benefits of the scheme extend beyond physical wellbeing too, as Kuziara explains: 'The reduction in car journeys has contributed to fewer toxic emissions outside school gates, improving air quality for pupils and local communities.'

As a nation, it is clear there is an in-built dependency on cars in our villages, towns and cities but if we make a conscious effort to switch to active and sustainable modes of transport, like walking and cycling, we can all experience the benefits to our health, the environment and communities.

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