WHO publishes report on health and environmental benefits of active travel

14 June 2022

Article: 56/2311

On 7 June 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) European Centre for Environment and Health published a new report, which looked at how cycling and walking can play a crucial role in shaping health, mitigating climate change and improving the environment. 

The report finds that cycling and walking can help fight weight problems and reduce physical inactivity, which reportedly cause one million deaths per year in the European Region, while also helping to reduce air pollution, which reportedly cause more than half a million deaths every year. The report finds that significant shifts toward walking and cycling can address problems resulting from current transport patterns, such as emissions of air pollutants, greenhouse gases and noise, traffic injuries, and limited opportunities for physical activity and use of public space. 

The publication has been developed under the Transport, Health and Environment Pan-European Programme (THE PEP), which is a joint programme between the WHO and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and provides policymakers with the latest scientific evidence to promote walking and cycling. While the links between physical activity and health are well-established, the specific effects of both active transport modes on people’s health are also highlighted, with many studies specifically investigating the impacts of walking and cycling. Among these, it was shown that: 

  • walking for 30 minutes or cycling for 20 minutes on most days reduces mortality risk by at least 10%
  • active commuting is associated with an approximate 10% decrease in risk for cardiovascular disease and a 30% decrease in type 2 diabetes risk
  • cancer-related mortality is 30% lower among bike commuters

The WHO European Regional Obesity Report 2022 found that almost two-thirds of adults and one-in-three children are overweight or obese in the region, with physical inactivity and obesity being important risk factors for noncommunicable diseases, accounting for almost 86% of deaths and 77% of the disease burden.

The WHO report that tackling the climate and air pollution crises requires curbing emissions from motorized transport, particularly private cars, as quickly as possible, with the report noting that emerging evidence shows the importance of active mobility in mitigating climate change. For example, a shift from car to active travel is possible for trips up to 16km in length, and those trips are responsible for 40% of carbon emissions from vehicles. Even if not all car trips could be substituted by cycling and walking, the potential for decreasing emissions could be considerable.

However, enabling the necessary shifts towards more active travel requires addressing safety issues, with 84,000 deaths annually from road injuries, including over 20,000 pedestrians and over 3,000 cyclists. Safety improvement measures should follow a systems approach targeting multiple structural levels, from individual education to vehicle safety, infrastructure design, and traffic regulation.

The publication urges countries of the region to implement the following measures to promote safe cycling and walking: 

  • Urban spaces should be re-designed to ensure they meet daily needs related to accessing jobs, education, health care, food and goods, recreation, and other amenities within distances that can be safely covered using active mobility means and public transport. 
  • Building up an infrastructure for safe walking and cycling, as this plays a central role in promoting active travel. 
  • Ensure the provision of trip-end facilities, such as changing rooms at workplaces and secure parking for bikes at destinations and in the proximity of public transport, providing a backup option for active travellers. 
  • Green spaces, parks and trails, and forms of urban revitalization should be options used to promote walking and cycling indirectly. 
  • Schools should be safely reachable by walking and biking, and children should learn about the importance of regular exercise and the environmental impacts of traffic. 
  • Ensuring the reduction of car dependency through better land use and urban planning, efficient public transport and disincentivising driving, which could lead to more walking and cycling. 
  • Countries should develop national cycling and walking plans, secure resources and allocate responsibilities to support their implementation. 

The new publication supports the Pan-European Master Plan for Cycling Promotion, which provides a set of recommendations to reallocate space for cycling and walking, improve active mobility infrastructure, increase cyclist and pedestrian safety to reduce fatalities, develop national cycling policies, and integrate cycling into health policies and urban and transport planning. This plan was endorsed last year by 56 countries of the pan-European region, convened under the framework of THE PEP at the fifth high-level meeting on transport, health, and environment.

Source: WHO/Europe, 7 June 2022