With so much evidence showing the wide-ranging benefits of physical activity, why isn’t Australia doing much more to promote active transport?

Trevor Shilton of the Heart Foundation and the Australian Physical Activity Network (AusPAnet) has been investigating recent research and developments in the area of active transport.

He writes:

“Active commuting has multiple benefits for both employers and employees, according to a new study by Dutch researchers that deserves some attention from Australian policymakers.

The study, profiled in the latest issue of AusPAnet**, found an association between commuter cycling and reduced all-cause sickness absence in a sample of over 1000 Dutch employees.

This impressive finding is in addition to previous evidence of the links between commuter cycling and a reduced risk of premature mortality, cardiovascular disease and in preventing becoming overweight.

These findings add to numerous other reports and research findings that make a strong case for governments to invest more in promoting and supporting walking, cycling and public transport policies, infrastructure and promotional programs.In this issue of AusPAnet, we also report on the NSW Bike Plan and in recent issues we have reported on the ACT Green Transport Plan and the UK’s Chief Medical Officer’s Annual Report.

The latter included a compelling section on physical inactivity in which the CMO noted that the benefits of  physical activity are irrefutable, and that “……  If a medication existed which had a similar effect, it would be regarded as a ‘wonder drug’ or ‘miracle cure”.

But beyond the public health benefits, the CMO drew the important connection between active transportation and climate change, noting that the threat of climate change provides sufficient impetus for action to substantially increase cycling and walking as common forms of transport.

In February, also in Britain, we saw a National Active Travel Strategy jointly released by the Department of Health and the Department of Transport.

This puts walking and cycling at the heart of both transport and health strategies in Britain, and it earmarked targeted investments. This in a country that has already committed to a 140 million pound National Cycling Strategy into which Health contributed 15 Million pounds. The Report declares this the ‘Decade of Cycling’.

In Australia we have seen strong representation of active transport issues through coalitions such as RAATA (The Rapid Affordable and Active Transport Alliance) and have seen positive recommendations in reports such as those of the Preventative Health Taskforce.

But despite the calls for an increased focus on walking and cycling on the grounds of public health, sustainability, climate change and economic grounds, Australia is yet to respond with funded initiatives.

For example, the Australian Government’s response to the Preventative Health Taskforce’s recommendations to counter the rising obesity epidemic can only be described as grossly inadequate.

The Obesity Policy Coalition pointedly said there was a “big fat hole” in the health reform agenda. While there is increasing evidence that physical inactivity and obesity are the leading drivers of preventable death and disease in Australia, the Australian Government’s financial, policy and program commitments to active transport are still lacking.

Advocacy groups will need to continue to forcefully put the arguments in favour of physical activity and active transport if the policy priority that is afforded to them is to match the potential benefits across health, environment and economy.

Joined up thinking is complex, but Australia needs a forthright, cross-sector national active transport plan that is well funded and supported – a plan that includes measures to ensure significant increases in walking, cycling and public transport.

The Heart Foundation’s Blueprint for an Active Australia calls for a range of measures that should form part of such a plan – these include calls to:

  • Prioritise walking, cycling and public transport in transport policy
  • Thoroughly implement health urban planning standards
  • Rapidly expand walking, cycling and public transport infrastructure
  • Improve the frequency, reach and affordability of public transport
  • Make the streets around schools safer for all children
  • Support infrastructure and incentives that promote and support walking and cycling to work
  • Subsidise the cost of public transport, especially in outer metropolitan areas
  • Implement bike rental schemes in cities
  • Resource complementary education and social marketing campaigns to promote active transport
  • Make infrastructure provision for bicycles to be taken on public transport during peak times.”

** AusPAnet (pronounced oz-par-net) is for anyone who sees physical activity as part of their role, or interest, and who would like to access accurate and timely information. The network is a joint initiative between the Heart Foundation and the Cluster for Physical Activity and Health, University of Sydney.

To become a member visit www.heartfoundation.org.au/auspanet

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