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Active Travel

by Jayne Hutchinson, July 2014

Active travel, defined as walking and cycling short journeys such as visiting friends, commuting or going to the shops, is high on the policy agenda. In 2010 the Departments of Transport and Health published a joint strategy on active travel and many local authorities have now published their own active travel policies.

Active travel simultaneously tackles two of society’s big challenges: more sedentary lives and the health concerns associated with that, and environmental changes caused by burning fossil fuels. Yet, the understanding about its social patterning is limited, particularly in relational to differences in socio-demographic predictors of active travel between urban and rural residents. Understanding variations between rural and urban populations may help local governments to devise policies that are appropriate and tailored to their communities.

Here at the ESRC-funded HOPE project (Health of Populations and Ecosystems) we have undertaken an initial analysis of the active travel of adults using data collected from Understanding Society, the largest UK representative household panel study.

In urban areas (defined as settlements of 10,000 people or more) we found that:

  • Residents were 64 per cent more likely to report that they always or very often walked or cycled short journeys of less than two to three miles.
  • Residents not in full-time employment and with no children are likely to walk or cycle more.
  • High-earners were less likely to take opportunities to travel actively, particularly if they had children, although those educated to degree-level were more likely to cycle or walk short journeys. 

In rural areas, we found that:

  • Only seven per cent of the population reported not having a car in their household.
  • There were fewer socio-demographic predictors of walking or cycling short journeys.
  • Rural residents in both higher and lower income brackets tended to use their cars for shorter journeys regardless of education or whether they had children or not. 

Although there are fewer opportunities for active travel for rural residents than for those living in towns and cities, the habit of using cars even for short rural journeys should be challenged. People living in rural areas need to be more pro-active than urban residents in order to meet their physical activity recommendations and to reduce their carbon footprint.

There also seems scope for increasing active travel in urban areas for some groups of people such as women, those with children, or with lower qualifications. We know that people with lower qualifications and lower income are less likely to engage in vigorous active leisure pursuits than those in higher brackets, therefore encouraging more active travel for some could be an important factor in helping increase their everyday physical activity.

In the next phase of this research we will explore relationships between people’s environmental behaviours such as active travel, energy use in the home and health behaviours such as fruit and vegetable intake, alcohol and smoking. An understanding of this may influence policies for improving the health of the population and the health of the environment.

You can download the full paper ‘Differences in the social pattering of active travel between urban and rural populations: findings from a large UK household survey’, from