Active travel – walking and cycling – is something of a magic bullet for health creation. “It obviously makes people more active but it can also have a whole heap of mindset benefits as part of the working day and by getting people outside,” says Katherine Bright, director of transportation planning at WSP in the UK. “It helps to improve air quality and helps to take cars and congestion out of the city, which makes the streets a much nicer place and more enticing.”
But taking space from cars is controversial, and meets with fierce opposition from local traders. This is typically why active travel schemes fail, adds Simeon Butterworth, Bright’s colleague and also a director at WSP. “In most transport strategies, the economic viability of the high street takes precedence over the health agenda.” COVID abruptly turned things upside down, forcing through changes that would have taken years. In May, the UK government set up emergency funding for active travel measures. Butterworth and Bright have since worked with more than 30 local authorities to implement measures such as adding cycle lanes and reallocating road space.
Active travel is most viable for the first and last mile of a journey, so it needs to be integrated into transport networks, says Butterworth. “For this to have any long-term influence on how we travel, we can’t just do it in glorious isolation.”
Enter the “mobility hub” – another concept that is fast gaining ground, and which WSP’s UK mobility teams are also helping local authorities to implement. This brings together new and traditional ways of travelling – trains, buses, taxis, shared bikes, e-scooters, delivery robots – alongside facilities or services that may be missing in the local area, whether that’s a supermarket, walk-in clinic, community centre or parcel lockers. “The idea is to make it easier to travel by sustainable modes,” explains WSP associate John Bradburn. “Rather than someone driving to drop their child off at nursery, then driving to work on the other side of town, then to the supermarket and back to the nursery, they might just be able to travel to the local hub to do everything they need and travel to work from there.” “It’s about being people-centric and place-centric,” adds Toby Thornton, technical director of future mobility at WSP in the UK. “It’s grounded in understanding the specific needs of an area and then looking at the gaps this intervention could fill. That might be a lack of access to essential goods, or to education. Some of the components might be temporary so the function of the hub will evolve over time.”
With a greater focus on prevention, health systems might choose to invest in apparently unrelated areas, like transport. Mobility and health are intrinsically linked, argues Stacey Matlen, a WSP employee currently seconded to the City of Detroit as a senior mobility strategist. She has a background in public health and has been working on a pilot project to give seniors access to health-enabling activities using autonomous vehicles. “My goal isn’t just to demonstrate the technology, but also to demonstrate the business model and the value of transportation to health – to make that causal connection between transportation access and access to basic services and health outcomes.”
Active travel is easier in some climates than others. In the sweltering summer temperatures of the United Arab Emirates, making cities walkable would mean providing some form of shade over the majority of walkways, points out Farah Yassine, WSP’s sustainable resource management lead in Dubai. Existing UAE green building regulations do enforce a percentage of shading, and Yassine says that clients are becoming more interested in outdoor thermal comfort as they realise the positive commercial impact of higher footfall, in addition to the health benefits that a connection to nature can offer. Standards such as WELL can be useful for helping developers to understand the features that support health, she says, “but what is really key is that health and wellbeing is a priority in the project brief. Good design that is people-centric will inherently encompass health and wellbeing principles.” Yassine believes that communities should be invited to play a much greater role in shaping new developments. Health can mean different things, she points out: “For some people, it might be having a gym in their building, but for others it might actually be having a playroom for kids. We can create healthier places by asking people what works for them, which will ultimately help them to lead healthier lifestyles.” Empowering people to shape their communities can have a positive impact on mental health too, she adds.