Health and Medicine

Health by Stealth partnership: better living through active transport

active transport
Photo by Max Bender on Unsplash

Australia lags behind other OECD nations in the quest to achieve more sustainable, active forms of passenger transport. An upcoming study, called Health by Stealth, will look to find ways to encourage more Australians to leave their cars at home, and add active transport into their transport mix.

The study will be led by the University of Tasmania’s Menzies Institute for Medical Research, with help from Deakin University, and the University of Sydney Business School’s Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies (ITLS). Tasmania was chosen as the ‘home’ of the study due to its high dependence on motor vehicles.

The research has been funded from a grant of $272,361 from the National Health and Medical Research Council. Along with this contribution, and the work of the three universities, other partners in the study include Metro Tasmania, the Tasmanian Department of Health and Human Services, and the Local Government Association of Tasmania.

What is active transport?

If the term ‘active transport’ is new to you, here’s a good definition, along with a list of benefits, from the Clearinghouse for Sport website:

Active transport refers to unassisted travel (i.e. walking) or the use of non-motorised transport (such as a bicycle) to reach an intended destination. There’s a great deal of overlap or synergy between walking and cycling used as active transport—and similar activity intended for social, recreational, and health or fitness outcomes.

Active transport has many demonstrated benefits such as personal wellbeing (health and fitness), social (community connectivity), environmental (reduced carbon footprint), and economic (reduced infrastructure costs).

The easy choice

Health by Stealth’s lead researcher is the Menzies Institute’s Dr Verity Cleland, who says the study aims to identify ways to “help make the healthy choice the easy choice” for travellers.

“Healthy transport options including walking, cycling and public transport, lead to health gains and increased social contact and connectedness while reducing traffic congestion, accidents, and air pollution.”

“With the help of our partners, we will be able analyse information from a range of existing sources to better understand how Tasmanians are getting from A to B, and the factors that influence whether or not they use healthy transport options,” Dr Cleland said.

Public transport is active transport?

If it’s obvious that walking and cycling are considered as active transport, the mention of public transport might seem odd. But “household travel data from the Victorian Integrated Survey of Travel and Activity (VISTA) found that people who used public transport on a particular day, also spent on average 41 minutes walking and/or cycling as part of their travel. This is five times more physical activity than those who only use private transport, who on average only spend 8 minutes walking or cycling.”

The bigger picture

ITLS’ Professor Stephen Greaves sees this study as having truly national benefits.

“Our research in the past has tended to focus on the big cities in Australia, but there is now an increasing realisation that we have neglected smaller cities and regional areas where the issues and potential solutions are different,” Professor Greaves said.

In addition to be being more geographically inclusive, it’s also hoped that the study contributes to a more cohesive and strategic approach to policy. As noted in the Cost and health benefit of active transport in Queensland report:

Active transport has in some cases been the victim of reductionist public policy. When problems are assigned to individual agencies, with narrowly defined responsibilities, walking and cycling (with their wider range of co-benefits) can often be disadvantaged. For example, transport agencies can rationally expand roads to reduce congestion, even if this degrades walking and cycling conditions (and therefore reduces population levels of physical activity). Similarly, environmental agencies can implement fuel efficiency standards that, by reducing the per-kilometre cost of driving, stimulate more car travel and therefore more congestion and accidents. These agencies run the risk of undervaluing walking and cycling improvements.

By developing a comprehensive method of evaluating public policy decisions, ‘win-win’ strategies can be identified that provide a solution to one problem that also helps reduce other challenges facing society, such as congestion reduction strategies that also help reduce parking costs, improve mobility options for non-drivers and increase physical activity and health.

Methods and benefits

For the Health by Stealth study, the researchers will collect health, physical activity, and travel information from a sample of people, both before and after they have been offered various incentives (largely financial) to change their modes of travel.

“The long term benefit of the study will be a greater understanding of the barriers and triggers to encouraging healthier travel choices as well as better measurement of the travel/health outcomes of such options,” said Professor Greaves.

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