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Government needs to stop prioritising car to tackle childhood obesity

Parents too worried about volume of traffic to let their children walk or cycle to school, clinicians say

Ingrid Torjesen

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

The government needs to stop prioritising the car if they are serious about tackling childhood obesity, insist clinicians and transport experts, writing an editorial* in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

The government and planners view the world from quite literally the driving seat, and this has allowed car travel to become the ‘default choice,’ argue the authors. Consequently, investment in road building far exceeds that for active travel—public transport, footpaths, and cycle lanes— “resulting in an environment that often feels too risky for walking or cycling”.

The average length of a school journey has nearly doubled since the 1980s to just under four miles in 2013, but the age at which parents will allow their children to go to school by themselves has been steadily creeping up amid fears about road safety. As a result they drive their children to school, but what is often not recognised is just how much air pollution children travelling by car are exposed to inside the vehicle under urban driving conditions, point out the authors, who are Professor Christopher Oliver, Dr Paul Kelly, and Dr Graham Barker from the Physical Activity for Health Research Centre at the Institute for Sport, University of Edinburgh; Dr Adrian Davis from the Transport Research Institute, Edinburgh Napier University; and Dave du Feu, from SPOKES, the Lothian Cycle Campaign, Edinburgh.

Encouraging independent travel not only helps shed the pounds, but has knock-on social and mental health benefits, and it breaks the cycle of normalising car travel for future generations, they argue. The UK could adopt the school travel initiatives pioneered by Germany, The Netherlands, and Denmark, they suggest, and it could plough more cash into the Sustainable Travel Towns programme.

This programme of town-wide measures, which aims to curb car use, has helped boost economic growth, cut carbon emissions and promote quality of life in those areas where it has been adopted, the authors say.

“For a fraction of the road building programme cost, we could see not just safe routes to schools, but, even more importantly, safe routes wholesale across urban areas,” they argue.

In a letter, sent to all four UK transport ministers—Chris Grayling in England; Humza Yousaf (Scotland); Ken Skates (Wales); and Karan Bradley (Northern Ireland)—the authors point to significant savings to the NHS, reductions in pollution levels, and ingraining sustainable travel behaviours among future generations if active travel were to be prioritised.

“The rhetoric of improving the environment in favour of children’s active travel has been visible for at least two decades, but tangible changes have largely been absent from transport planning,” they write.

“We suggest the time is right to redress the imbalance and give back to today’s children many of the freedoms that older adults recall and benefited from in terms of the levels of independent mobility,” they conclude.


*William O. C, Kelly P, Baker G, et al. There is too much traffic for Alex to walk to school, so we drive: a call to action based on a 42-year trend. Br J Sports Med Published Online First: 09 April 2018. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2017-098933

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