Walking and cycling get a huge boost from the World Health Organisation

By John Whitelegg

We have always known that walking and cycling are unambiguously good for individual and community health. Mayer Hillman dealt with walking in a thorough, scientific and policy relevant manner in his 1979 book (with Anne Whalley), “Walking is transport”. He went on to do the same again in “Cycling: towards health and safety” in 1992. We also know that road traffic danger and worries about walking and cycling in and near heavy traffic and often speeding traffic is a huge deterrent to doing something that is intrinsically healthy, inexpensive and supportive of lively, active communities. As is often the case in transport, knowledge, science and evidence is not valued and not a part of decision-making. Anyone who has sat in a Council planning committee meeting considering new car-dependent developments will know that the outcome will be huge increases in car parking numbers, very expensive increases in road capacity and truly dreadful walking and cycling environments.

It is, therefore no surprise at all that walking and cycling are in decline in spite of the very strong and often misleading propaganda that attempts to convince us that cycling is thriving.

The problem we are all dealing with is the deeply embedded commitment in all public policy to promote cars and lorries and demote walking and cycling but perhaps things may now change. This month the World Health Organisation in Geneva, after extensive discussion and consultation, has produced a draft global strategy on physical activity.
This is significant because the WHO is a UN organisation charged with giving guidance to every country on the planet and that guidance will now include ways of boosting walking and cycling, shifting transport spending so that a much larger proportion goes into walking and cycling, urban design to create environments that support physical activity including walking and cycling and 30 kph speed limits.

It is of course possible that such guidance will not have much impact on those who make decisions about transport policy in Britain e.g. the truly dreadful M4 relief road in South Wales at £1.1 billion for 22 km and the wasteful spending of £14 million in Shrewsbury (Shropshire Council) on 2 roundabouts and a new road. Nothing the WHO can do will shift unintelligent thinking in our councils in the direction well-balanced intelligent, health promoting thinking based on Vision Zero and 30 kph. It is still a very good thing that we have the WHO “on-side” and it is up to all those who want to eliminate deaths in the traffic world (Vision Zero) and improve public health to welcome the WHO contribution and to use it where it matters which is in ever council chamber in Britain and in every discussion with MPs and those who would like to be MPs

The WHO draft strategy (Global Action Plan on Physical Activity) can be found here.

Consultation will be open until 22 September 2017.
Member States, UN organizations and non-State actors are invited to submit their comments by email.

John Whitelegg is a member of the WHO Strategic Advisory Network for the Development of the Global Action Plan on Physical Activity

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