Radical NHS proposals announced this week proposed discounts and incentives to reward healthier lifestyles. The debate about better public health while reducing the burden on the NHS is necessary.
Since 2015, Britain has generously occupied the top of the European obesity league table. To tackle this middle-age (and youthful) spread will take major changes in attitudes and in built environments throughout society.
In Edinburgh, conversations around transport investments are fraught, as we consider whether extending an expensive tram development might be a good idea. Another transport infrastructure project is quietly underway: the city centre west to east cycle link from the Roseburn path to Leith Walk. It’s a good start, but needs to be part of a far more comprehensive investment in promoting cycling, not as part of an Olympic or Commonwealth Games legacy, but as a simple, affordable, and above all healthy, way to get around.
In April 2017, the largest ever study of its type was published in the British Medical Journal, which drew a compelling conclusion: cycling to work has dramatic health benefits. Cycle commuters had a 52 per cent lower risk of dying from heart disease and a 40 per cent lower risk of dying from cancer. In Scotland and the UK, we should be devoting public funds to improving cycle infrastructure and road networks for cyclists, and to changing attitudes to “people on bikes”.
It takes leadership to construct an environment where – as in many European countries – it is perfectly normal to hop on a bike, without getting changed or wearing a helmet – because it’s the easiest way to get to your destination. Andrew Gilligan did an excellent job in London and lucky Manchester now has the admirable Chris Boardman as commissioner for cycling. Maybe Sir Chris Hoy can be persuaded to don the mantle in his home city?
It’s far cheaper per mile than road building, although requires clever planning and stakeholder engagement - discouraging the use of thoroughfares as car parks is one element. The evidence for the value -for -money benefits of cycling schemes is stacking up – the Department for Transport’s assessment of this puts cycling far above other transport investment. Building quality infrastructure at key points can have a dramatic effect on take-up. In London, the addition of a segregated cycle lane over Blackfriars Bridge was so successful that in December 2016 Transport for London revealed that cyclists made up 70 per cent of traffic over the bridge.
In addition to changes needed in the physical environment, attitudes towards using bicycles for transport need to change too. In autumn 2016, West Midlands Police initiated “operation close pass”, which has been adopted by many police forces, to help change driver behaviour and reduce the risk factors that put many off cycling. Cycling behaviour can also be dangerous, as we know from this week’s conviction at the Old Bailey, and in order to improve it while crucially winning over cynics, operations focusing on road user conduct should encompass cyclist behaviour too.
Roads were not built for cars, they were built for people to get around, and should be further improved to benefit our national health.