Here’s how cycling has the potential to transform cites and dramatically improve health and wellbeing

On yer bike. Image: Getty.

The UK is becoming more and more sedentary. Physical inactivity currently costs the NHS around £1bn each year; including costs to wider society, this rises to around £7.4bn each year.

The big four causes of preventable ill-health are smoking, drinking alcohol, poor nutrition, and lack of physical activity. Of these, the importance of regular exercise is the least well-known. However, evidence is growing.

A recent report by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, Exercise – the Miracle Cure showed how regular exercise can prevent dementia, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, depression, heart disease and other common serious conditions. Keeping physically active can also reduce the risk of early death by up to 30 per cent. England’s Chief Medical Officer and the UK government recommend adults get 150 minutes of physical activity each week.

In 2015, however, 34 per cent of men and 42 per cent of women reported that they did not meet UK guidelines on physical activity. According to the British Heart Foundation women are 36 per cent more likely to be considered physically inactive than men. While the majority of adults across the UK are aware of the need to exercise and be physically active, we increasingly find adopting these behaviours challenging.

One of the best ways to increase exercise is through changing our everyday travel behaviours – for example, by cycling more. But for too long, cycling has been seen as a fringe activity in UK cities. This is despite the fact that the size and density of most UK cities are perfectly suited for travel by bike. For example, almost three quarters of trips in Greater Manchester between 3km and 5km are driven. These journeys could be ridden by a cycle at a leisurely pace in around 20 minutes.

Despite this, almost all roads in almost every UK city are currently designed to prioritise cars over other forms of transport. This isn’t surprising considering how easy we make it for people to get in a car and hard for people to walk, cycle or use public transport. And this is despite evidence that shows the latter is better for our health, air quality, congestion, climate change and the economy.

So what would the impact be if cities prioritised everyday cycling?


Sustrans’ new report Transforming Cities: The potential of everyday cycling is based on data from Bike Life, the largest assessment of cycling in UK cities, and highlights the impact of doubling cycling trips every eight years between 2017 and 2040. The modelling follows the UK government’s Cycling & Walking Investment Strategy, which seeks to double cycling in England by 2025.

We found an estimated 34,000 incidences of eight life-threatening conditions – including Type 2 diabetes, stroke, breast cancer and depression – would be prevented in seven major cities between 2017 and 2040, if cycling increased at rates like those seen since the millennium in London.

In 2040 and each year thereafter this would equate to over 240 million hours of additional physical activity and the prevention of 628 early deaths. Between 2017 and 2040 cycling could generate £21bnof savings to the economy, including £319m of savings to the NHS.

Cities, including London, Bristol and Cardiff, have shown cycling rates can double over an eight year timeframe. However, we need this to be commonplace in the UK rather than the exception.

The substantial health benefits from increased cycling are only possible if long-term political commitment and investment across government exist at both the city and the national level. Cities will need the courage and conviction to redesign streets and make cycling accessible to everyone. We need to make it easier to cycle than drive in our cities and this means dedicated space for cycling, and making our roads safe enough for a 12-year-old to cycle.

Sustrans, along with other walking and cycling organisations, wants the UK Government to commit 5 per cent of the transport budget on active travel, raising to 10 per cent by 2025 in the next Comprehensive Spending Review. This would amount to £17 per person annually in 2020-21, rising to £34 per person in 2024-25 in England. Similar commitments should then be made in the devolved nations, so as to help cities to invest. As Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester recently said: “We are made to move and now is the time to act on this”.

Tim Burns is senior policy & partnerships advisor at the sustainable transport charity Sustrans.

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.