Can We Achieve Evidence-Based Policy and Practice on Active Travel?

In this commentary prepared for the 2008 Active Living Research Conference, Philip Insall of Sustrans, a UK-based, nonprofit organization, shares his insights into how research can be used to shape policies that encourage people to travel on foot or by bicycle.

"Active travel" is the physical activity of people walking or cycling for transportation and clearly has both health and environmental benefits. Sustrans works on practical projects that encourage more people to travel on foot or by bike; but as the author points out, the potential for active travel is affected by many sectors that shape the environment, such as planning, transportation, development and communities. There are significant challenges to getting professionals in these sectors to incorporate recognition of the health benefits of active travel into their work.

Key Findings:

  • Professionals from other sectors are not aware they should consider physical activity in their thinking; are not typically exposed to health research data; and are unfamiliar with its language.
  • There is a lack of relevant, rigorous research on active travel available to policy- makers. Of 94,172 papers eligible to be included in a UK review of literature on physical activity and the environment, only 54 studies met the robust research standards demanded in public health.
  • Even where good research exists, there is a lack of guidance for nonhealth professionals on how to translate this research into action.

The author details two Sustrans initiatives to incorporate public health objectives into the process of shaping the environment. First, Sustrans delivers health research to, and interprets that research into the technical language of more than 25,000 UK professionals and policy- makers so they understand how to incorporate the health benefits of active travel into their work. Second, Sustrans works to incorporate public health benefits and costs into the equations used by these various sectors to assess public policies and projects. Sustrans aims to include recognition of both the direct benefits of physical activity and the indirect benefits from an improved environment.