Blog: What’s transport got to do with it? 

“What’s transport got to do with health?” I was asked by a friend of mine with a slightly puzzled expression. This question came after I’d mentioned that I would be spending a year of my Public Health Specialty Training working with Transport North East (TNE). I’ve been asked the same question a few times since, and my time spent in the world of transport has helped me consider this question more deeply. 

So, where do we start? Well, our understanding of health is a good place, the World Health Organisation (WHO) define it as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’. This reminds us that health is about body, mind and our connection with others, not just about avoiding sickness. All aspects of life influence our health and wellbeing and responsibility for health goes well beyond the traditional health sector. In fact, it is estimated that only 15% of our health is influenced by healthcare, and the majority of our health is actually shaped by wider factors such as education, employment, housing, our current environment and our ability to travel to others… Are we starting to see that connection yet?  

Over the last few months, I’ve discovered just how much transport has an impact on our health and wellbeing. It enables us to access goods and services, and connects us to education, employment, social and leisure opportunities, which can unlock a whole host of personal health and social benefits – sounds obvious when you put it like that, doesn’t it? However, there are other factors that I hadn’t necessarily considered, such as the physical activity often associated with transport that boosts our physical and mental health. Equally, there are downsides, vehicle emissions pollute the air we breathe and can contribute to climate change, and transport related injuries, although reducing, remain a significant public health issue and are the second leading cause of death for children and young adults.  

A lightbulb moment for me this year has been seeing more clearly the importance of good quality public transport systems in supporting healthier communities. Having dug deep into research based on the National Travel Survey I found that people who take the bus do on average 16min of physical activity per bus journey when combining walking to and from bus stops. Journeys by bus can therefore go a long way to helping people meet the Chief Medical Officer guideline of 150min moderate intensity physical activity per week. When it comes to the region, increasing bus usage in the North East by just 5% could add almost 2.5million minutes activity per week for the North East population, an amount that would produce noticeable population health improvement – just imagine what difference that would make if more people took part?! 

Another fascinating moment for me was learning how sustainable transport choices are influenced by our street environments. I recently completed a course introducing ‘Healthy Streets’, an approach to human centred street design, which provides training and tools for people who want to make streets healthier and better places to travel through or spend time in. Streets that feel welcoming, pleasant, and safe encourage active travel and public transport use. The Healthy Streets approach could provide a practical resource for health, transport and planning colleagues to embed health in transport planning. I must admit, I find it hard to walk down a street now without keeping my eyes peeled for things we could do to make a difference, is it well lit? Are there places to sit? Does it feel green and welcoming? So next time you’re walking, wheeling or cycling down your street, why not have a think about if it’s a place that feels ‘healthy’ to you? 

Despite the compelling connections between transport and health, it is only quite recently that professionals from these sectors have started work together for shared interests. The invitation for me to work with TNE to help strengthen the central ‘Healthier North East’ objective in the North East Transport Plan is one of the first of its kind in the country and is a huge a step forward along this journey. Having spent almost a year working with team here I’ve become even more convinced that our region’s transport system can play an important part in shaping a healthier and thriving North East. I hope that by sharing some of my highlights from my journey here, that more work will be done to encourage the connections between transport and health across the country. I’m so excited to see new partnerships forming between transport and health and I look forward to continuing to support this work in my future career as a public health specialist. 

So, to summarise, what’s transport got to do with health? My answer? Absolutely everything. 

Luke Robertshaw 

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“…what’s transport got to do with health? My answer? Absolutely everything.” Public Health Professional Luke Robertshaw is as an advocate