Public Health – letter to Directors of Public Health

With recent changes to the health landscape, we’ve written to the three Directors of Public Health in Tyneside alerting them to how cycling’s contribution to health will help towards their goal of a healthier Tyneside. For cycling to truly thrive, spending on infrastructure is vital, and we look towards health directors to use their new influence over council spending. Here’s the letter:

Dear Director of Public Health

LOCAL PUBLIC HEALTH AND CYCLING

As Public Health moves into local authorities from the NHS we wish to highlight cycling as a valuable public health intervention. This was something Liam Donaldson discussed in his Chief Medical Officers report of 2010.

“National targets should be set to double travel on foot in England’s towns and cities, and to increase travel by bicycle eightfold; transport policy and road design should support the achievement of such gains. There would be significant reductions in heart disease, stroke, diabetes, depression and dementia. In London alone, over 55,000 healthy years of life could be saved every year. Travel by bicycle or on foot needs to become the safe, viable, attractive option for a far greater proportion of journeys.”

A recent Lancet paper (1) has given new impetus to Professor Donaldson’s call. It found that over 20 years increases in active travel would lead to savings of £20 billion (at 2010 prices) in the UK NHS. Cycling merges physical activity into a daily routine, it can be done by all ages and people of different abilities and is nearly free after the upfront cost of the bike. It’s a means of reaching employment and training to those without car access, enhances local environments and a sense of community. Those who cycle report fewer sick days than non cyclists and those that cycle to work have a 39% lower all cause mortality rate (2) even after lifestyle factors have been considered. Overall cycling is a health best buy, if it was a drug it would be a major blockbuster. Even in today’s sometimes hostile road environment it’s safer to be a cyclist. Research from the 1990’s from the Policy Study Institute when cycling was more dangerous than now, (and endorsed by the UK government) estimated a 20:1 benefit:cost ratio in cycling’s favour.

The Faculty of Public Health has resisted the move into local authorities but one positive thing is that directors will now be able to directly influence council spending. Street and road design at council level has traditionally been about allowing people to move about in cars as fast as possible, but you will now be in a position to directly challenge this outdated practice. There will be opportunities to promote cycling via Health and Wellbeing Boards too.

One change that is needed at council level is the willingness to divert transport and health spending into improving the built environment. Such spending would have way more effect on health than funding new drugs like Dabigatran, coronary bypass operations or NHS Health Checks. Cycling can thrive in Tyneside if the conditions are right, but this means spending on proper, well-designed infrastructure that makes active travel easier and more appealing. It also means allocating more street space to active travel and away from cars. Over three decades the Netherlands has paid great attention to the built environment and now spends about Euro 30 per person on cycling infrastructure alone. Tyneside councils spend about £1. The Netherlands has the lowest amount of obesity in Europe and most cycling of any western nation.

The campaign asks you to bring your influence to bear as this important change for public health takes place. Please do not hesitate to contact us.
With kind regards,

_____________________ _____________________
Katja Leyendecker (Chair) + Dr Peter Ward (Cycling and Health Representative)

1. The Lancet, Volume 379, Issue 9832, Pages 2198 – 2205, 9 June 2012, Effect of increasing active travel in urban England and Wales on costs to the National Health Service, Jarrett et al, Doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(12)60766-1
2. Andersen LB et al. (2000). All-Cause Mortality Associated With Physical Activity During Leisure Time, Work, Sports and Cycling to Work. Archives of Internal Medicine 160(11): 1621-1628.