Cycle off excess Welsh weight

Lee Waters asks what we can do about our obesity epidemic

If UK is in danger of becoming the ‘fat man of Europe’, as the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges has claimed, then what does that make Wales? And what are we going to do about it?

With 36 per cent of children overweight or obese Wales has the highest rates of childhood obesity in the UK – and not far behind the US. And it is not just a matter of appearances. Carrying too much weight has a direct impact on our health: type 2 diabetes, heart disease, strokes, and some types of cancer, are all consequences of the obesity epidemic. It is estimated that the NHS in Wales spends £1 million every week treating obesity related illness.

Tackling the fast food and fizzy drink culture is a key part of the effort to tackle this modern scourge, but so too is getting people moving. Physical inactivity and sedentary living are among the leading causes of chronic disease, ill health and death in Wales. In fact as many people die from physical inactivity each year as from smoking.

Last week, the Welsh Government introduced their ‘Active Travel’ Bill into the Senedd. It marked the first time legislation has been framed to place a legal duty on central and local government to encourage more people to walk and cycle.

The focus is on short everyday journeys. In 2011, over 20 per cent of the car journeys we made were under two miles, a distance that could easily be covered on foot or by bike. A survey by the road safety charity Brake (echoed by a similar Sustrans sponsored poll) found that 46 per cent of people would be persuaded to cycle on local roads if conditions are improved.

Too often at the moment the paths that are built don’t link up, are poorly designed and are not well maintained. We’ve all seen random pieces of coloured tarmac that stop all of a sudden, leaving cyclists marooned in traffic. No wonder research finds that people think cycling is eccentric and that only a minority would choose to brave such an experience.

A major study led by Lancaster University found that most people don’t regard cycling as something for them.  “It is regarded either as a toy for children or a vehicle fit for the poor and or strange,” said Dave Horton one of the research authors. “Many regard cycling as a bit embarrassing”.

This is hardly surprising really, given that just two per cent of journeys are by bike. Clearly it is not something that most people currently do. It is therefore, by definition, unusual.

But survey after survey has shown that it is something that many more people would consider doing. The Lancaster University research shows that habits, working patterns and current road conditions put people off getting on a bike. However, a package of measures to make cycling easier and more attractive has the potential to reverse the long term decline. The researchers suggested some of the things that can be done:

  • Fully segregated cycle and pedestrian routes wherever feasible.
  • Restrictions on traffic speeds and parking provision; a change in legal liabilities on roads to protect the most vulnerable road users.
  • Changes to structure of cities to make accessing services on foot or by bike easy.
  • Changes to give people more flexibility to travel more slowly (for example, flexi hours).

All these actions are realisable and taken together they could and a change the image of cycling and walking.

The Active Travel (Wales) Bill won’t tackle all of these, but it will make a start. When the Bill becomes law in October, councils will have to map out an ideal future network which plugs existing gaps, and extends routes to schools, workplaces and residential areas. Crucially it will be underpinned by a set of design standards that will ensure that new infrastructure conforms to best practice and doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the past.

Local Authorities will also be expected to maintain and improve the networks. Naturally there are concerns from local government about the cost of these extra duties, especially since the Welsh Government stress there will be no additional funding. Around £14 million is being spent on safer cycling, and if all the Bill achieves is to spend that in a more joined up way then it will be worthwhile.  However, to really make a difference it needs to be backed with additional funding.

For the Active Travel Bill to reach its full potential, Wales needs to follow the lead of countries such as Holland and Denmark. They haven’t always been filled with cyclists. Thirty to forty years ago, the Dutch were like us – wedded to their cars. Their government made a conscious decision to invest in making walking and cycling the normal way to get around everyday. Now they spend around £19 per head on walking and cycling schemes. In Wales, if the same level of investment was made it would equate to £60 million a year – the cost of a couple of miles of new road.

Of course, the passing of this Bill will not see mini versions of Copenhagen popping up across the Welsh valleys. The barriers to getting more of us cycling are many and varied. However, it will address some systemic barriers which are preventing the growth of a cycling culture. The Welsh Government has set out an ambitious vision which will require considerable resources and political will to implement over a generation. The combined pressure of rising petrol prices, climate change and an obesity epidemic means it is a vision worth striving towards.

Lee Waters is National Director of the Sustainable Transport charity Sustrans Cymru.

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