Get moving: Creating a research strategy for active cities
Many cities around the globe are home to dangerous roads, social stigmas that bicycling is “for the poor,” and urban designs that neglect walking and bicycling. Photo by Slightly-less-random.
Cities around the globe are seeing a creeping problem of growing physical inactivity, due in part to the lack of pleasurable every-day walking and bicycling. While in some cities there are ample facilities for a refreshing commute on bicycle, a leisurely stroll to the neighborhood market or park, or the ability to walk to high-quality public transport, many of the world’s metropolises are home to dangerous roads, social stigmas that bicycling is “for the poor,” and urban designs that neglect walking and bicycling.
Physical inactivity currently causes 3.2 million deaths worldwide every year, and a growing number of the world’s inactive population comes from low- and middle-income countries. In Brazil people have become more sedentary – physical activity is expected to decrease by 34% from now to 2030. In China, where physical activity already plunged 46% between 1991 and 2009, it is expected to decrease by an additional 51% by 2030. Behind these numbers are sinking levels of active transport, such as walking or biking. Beijing, once known as the bicycle kingdom, has seen the cycling share of total trips plunge from 62% in 1986 to 16% in 2010 while private car trips have increased their share from 5% to 34%. A study in China showed that as people purchased vehicles they became more obese over time, a trend most evident among men, with another study in Colombia showing similar results. This trend has revealed itself across Asia, Latin America and even in Africa where motorization is currently occurring at a lower rate, but where urbanization will boom in the coming decades.
But among policy and decision-makers, the issue remains largely under the radar – and justifiably so. There is little, and in some countries no existing body of research on how to effectively promote active mobility as it pertains to physical activity, let alone basic information on household travel. Many cities’ travel surveys cover only vehicular modes, leaving out walking altogether.
Nevertheless, there is a nascent body of useful research on things such as improvements in mass transport, the built environment (street density, access to parks and traffic safety), efforts to close streets on weekends for Ciclovias, mostly in Latin America, as well as studies trying to determine the context of the physical activity and transport relationship.
With an opportunity to do more, EMBARQ has been working with the International Development Research Centre (IRDC) of Canada to identify research that could inform effective policies and actions that increase active transport in low- and middle-income countries. After a recent workshop with researchers and decision-makers in a variety of sectors from transport to health to housing and land use, three broad categories have been identified.
- First, research is needed that shows the economic and quality of life benefits of active transport. Decision-makers need information to take action. The more we understand about how active transport connects to priorities such as economic development, climate change, traffic safety, air quality, traffic congestion or social equity, the better prepared we will be to make the needed changes to cities. One current tool to build on is the WHO Health Economic Assessment Tool for walking and cycling, mostly applicable now to the developed world.
- Second, with many stigmas, policies processes and other issues connected to why or why not active transport succeeds, research is needed on how political and other forces play a role. Examples include comparative studies of policies (e.g. Ciclovias), reviews of cultural and political needs and opportunities.
- Last but certainly not least, research should provide practical information on how urban design and transport projects can bolster active transport through street networks, BRT and Metro, bicycle infrastructure design, access to parks and public spaces, and bicycle sharing to name a few. Examples include a review of key design characteristics that promote walking in Bogota, or assessing urban design and the relation to active living in China.
One participant of the workshop noted that research regarding physical activity and transport is a relatively new one, which has existed for 15 years in the United States but has been absent until the past few years in the developing world. Providing the necessary research on this issue will require mobilizing resources from a variety of fields from health, transport, housing, parks & recreation, environmental organizations, urban planning and others to come together. If done right, we could see more people walking and bicycling their way to healthier lives against the challenges of urban growth and personal motorization.