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.

 
 
 
 

How US planners experimented with “the iron hand of power” over colonial Manila

Manila in ruins, 1945. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1904, Manila must have appeared to its new overlords a despairing prospect. Racked with poverty and disease, it was still recovering from years of war, epidemic and a fire that had left 8,000 homeless.

For architect Daniel Burnham, it was an opportunity to put to work the radical ideas he had dreamed of in America.

He was among those asking how America’s unprecedented wealth at the turn of the century could be reconciled with the lives of the country’s poorest. Like many, he admired the ideas of harmonised city-planning articulated in Edward Bellamy’s bestselling science-fiction Looking Backward (1888).

At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Burnham constructed the “White City”. Built across 686 acres of parkland, boulevards, gardens and neoclassical structures rendered a spray-painted plaster vision of the future – all laid out to one comprehensive plan.

It was impressive – but implementing grand designs where people actually lived meant laborious negotiations with citizens, businessmen and politicians.

Instead, opportunity lay in America’s new overseas territories. As Daniel Immerwahr describes in How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States, “They functioned as laboratories, spaces for bold experimentation where ideas could be tried with practically no resistance, oversight, or consequences.”

An architect’s dream

The US had gone to war with Spain in 1898, taking advantage of an empire-wide insurrection. It ended up controlling the entire Philippines, along with Guam and Puerto Rico.

As a “territory”, the Philippines existed outside the protections of the constitution. Congress could impose any law, proclaimed the attorney general in 1901, “without asking the consent of the inhabitants, even against their consent and against their protest, as it has frequently done.”

Which is how Burnham, upon invitation by the Philippine’s new rulers, came to wield what the Architectural Record called “the iron hand of power” over Manila.

 Burnham’s plan for Manila. Click to expand.

Where Burnham’s Chicago plan was complex, took years and entailed collaboration with hundreds of citizens, Burnham spent six months on the Manila plan, and just six weeks in the Philippines. And with no voters to persuade, there seemed little reason to register Filipino input in his designs.

In 1905 Burnham submitted his Report on Improvement of Manila. It described filling the toxic moat of the Spanish fortress Intramuros and developing a rectangular street system modelled on Washington D.C., with diagonal arteries which even Chicago lacked.


Central to his plan was the city’s beautification through monumental buildings, waterfront improvements, and parks – “wholesome resorts” to “give proper means of recreation to every quarter of the city”

Burnham charged William E. Parsons as the omnipotent “Consultant Architect” to interpret his plan, who relished its authority over all public building as an “architect’s dream”. When concerned with the extent of his purview, he also chose to standardise a number of public buildings.

“I doubt if this method would bear fruit in our own city improvement plans, in which everything depends on slow moving legislative bodies,” reported the Architectural Record’s correspondent.

Despite Burnham’s colonial sentiments his biographer concluded his plan was “remarkable in its simplicity and its cognizance of Philippine conditions and traditions.”

His plans did not shy from asserting the colonial government’s authority, however. The Luneta, a favourite park, was to become the nuclei of government. The city’s avenues would converge there, for “every section of the Capitol City should look with deference toward the symbol of the Nation’s power.”

Unusual monumental possibilities

Burnham also worked on a summer palace for US administrators at Baguio, 150 miles north in the mountains. On land inhabited by Igorot people, Burnham saw an opening “to formulate my plans untrammelled by any but natural conditions”.

Baguio’s “unusual monumental possibilities” were facilitated by a road whose construction employed thousands, risking death from disease and falling off cliffs. Civic buildings would “dominate everything in sight” and a golf course would rival those of Scotland.

“Stingy towards the people and lavish towards itself,” griped La Vanguardia, the government “has no scruples nor remorse about wasting money which is not its own.”

As enthusiasm for US empire soured in the States, local power was relinquished to Filipinos. Parsons resigned in protest in 1914. He was replaced by Manila-born Juan Arellano, whose rebuke to imperialists was the mighty, neoclassical Legislative Building which hosted the elected Philippine Legislature. Arellano upheld Burnham’s plan, producing a beautified city bearing resemblance to Burnham’s White City.

But the Legislative Building, along with Burnham’s great edifices and almost everything else in Manila, was levelled as US troops recaptured it in 1945, this time ousting the Japanese in a brutal battle. “Block after bloody block was slowly mashed into an unrecognizable pulp”, recorded the 37th Infantry Division as they exercised their own “iron hand” over Manila.

American artillery had transformed Manila into ruins. “It was by far the most destructive event ever to take place on US soil,” writes Immerwahr, even if few soldiers realised they were liberating US nationals at the time. Burnham’s expansive vision was lost in the debris, and though some buildings were rebuilt a majority were replaced. Today, Manila’s pre-war architecture is remembered with fondness and nostalgia.