New tool will help planners incorporate active travel into cities

15 March 2022

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have developed a free online tool to help planners design exercise into towns and cities. 

The way towns and cities are designed can have a huge influence on the way we get around. The researchers found that infrastructure that encourages active travel, can increase the overall amount of physical activity that people do by around 45 minutes per week.

‘Our findings add to the growing evidence supporting the case for changing the environment to promote physical activity – by making walking and cycling safer, more convenient, and more attractive,’ says Jenna Panter, a Senior Research Associate in the Population Health Interventions programme.

To help planners incorporate active travel, the research team has created the Integrated Transport and Health Impact Modelling Tool (ITHIM) to assess the health effects and trade-offs of different transport scenarios and policies.

‘Air pollution levels and the risk of injury from walking or cycling vary massively across the world,’ says James Woodcock. ‘In Cambridge, cycling is pretty normalised, and injury risk and pollution levels are low by global standards. While air pollution is a problem, the harms from the additional pollution you breathe in while exercising are much smaller than the benefits from being physically active.

‘We found that, even in a highly polluted environment, doing some physical activity is better than none. However, people who are active for much of the day, like bicycle delivery riders, will be breathing in a lot of extra pollution and they don’t have much choice about this. By reducing air pollution concentrations we can increase the benefits of physical activity for everyone – and that’s where our tool can help guide policy-makers decisions.’

Likewise, the risk of injury from active travel varies widely from place to place. The team’s data shows that it’s safer to cycle in The Netherlands than it is to drive in most Latin American cities.

‘There is a lot we can do to reduce injury risks,’ says Woodcock. ‘The ‘Vision Zero’ campaign says there is no acceptable level of death and serious injury caused by traffic. We need to reduce traffic volume and speed, and that’s what policies like ‘Low Traffic Neighbourhoods’ are trying to do. Where that isn’t possible, we need protected space for cycling.’

Woodcock and Panter are involved in projects to evaluate the impact of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods – schemes that stop people in motor vehicles from cutting through residential streets. The aim is to encourage walking and cycling by making it safer and more comfortable and to make driving less convenient.

Their projects will compare how volumes of walking, cycling and driving change after new Low Traffic Neighbourhoods are built in various London boroughs – examining impacts both inside and on boundary roads.