Ditch the car and take the bus – making commuting work for us

A growing body of evidence shows that commuting to work by foot, bike and also by public transport could not only be good for your health, but even be good for your career prospects. Society Central Editor, Christine Garrington examines what this all means for policy and business as well as for individuals.

Photo credit: Northern Ireland Executive

Recent research by a team from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and UCL showed that not just walking or cycling to work but even catching the bus or the tube are all linked to lower body weight and body fat composition compared with those who get to work by car.

The team analysed 7,534 BMI measurements and 7,424 percentage body fat measurements from men and women taking part in the major household survey, Understanding Society. In a podcast interview, Dr Ellen Flint from LSHTM explains they started by looking at how people currently get to work:


When Dr Flint and her colleagues looked at the links between how people got to work and their BMI and body fat, they found:

  • Men who commuted via public or active modes had BMI scores around 1 point lower than those who used private transport, equating to a difference in weight of 3kg (almost half a stone) for the average man.
  •  Women who commuted via public or active transport had BMI scores around 0.7 points lower than their private transport using counterparts, equating to a difference in weight of 2.5kg (5.5lb) for the average woman.

When it came to body fat, men who actively travelled to work (walking, cycling or public transport) had body fat that was roughly one per cent age point lower than those who commuted by car, which the researchers say confirms the picture seen when looking at BMI.

The researchers say these differences are “larger than those seen in the majority of individually focused diet and physical activity interventions to prevent overweight and obesity.”

 Dr Flint called on policy makers and town planners and designers to take note and act on the findings:

Reducing disease

The research comes hard on the heels of a study by a team at Imperial College London and UCL showing that people who walk to work are around 40 per cent less likely to have diabetes as those who drive also making use of unprecedented new health data from Understanding Society.

They found that cycling, walking, and using public transport were all associated with lower risk of being overweight than driving or taking a taxi. People who walk to work were also 17% less likely than people who drive to have high blood pressure. Cyclists were around half as likely to have diabetes as drivers.

Another study by health economists at the University of East Anglia and the Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR) showed that walking or cycling to work is better for people’s mental health than driving to work.

The report, which used British Household Panel Survey data reveals that people who stopped driving and started walking or cycling to work benefited from improved wellbeing. In particular, active commuters felt better able to concentrate and were less under strain than if they travelled by car. Using public transport was also found to be better for people’s psychological wellbeing than driving.

Rigorous research

The research team used information on almost 18,000 18-65-year-old commuters in Britain. The data allowed them to look at multiple aspects of psychological health including feelings of worthlessness, unhappiness, sleepless nights, and being unable to face problems.

The researchers also accounted for numerous factors known to affect wellbeing, including income, having children, moving house or job, and relationship changes.

Adam Martin, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, believes the research provides policy makers and planners with plenty of food for thought:

“This research shows that if new projects such as London’s proposed segregated cycleways, or public transport schemes such as Crossrail, were to encourage commuters to walk or cycle more regularly, then there could be noticeable mental health benefits.”

Good for business

And if all this scientific evidence around how much better it would be for us to leave the car behind and get to work on foot or by bike, on the bus or by tube, then research from research carried out for Cyclescheme.co.uk has found that workers who commute by bike are more productive, more focussed and even feel more likely to get promoted than their colleagues.

82pc of those surveyed said they felt less stressed after cycling to or from work, while over half said commuting by bike made them feel more productive. Benefits were also seen by employers, with 63pc saying initiatives to get people on their bikes were improving their business.

James Borley from Cyclescheme.co.uk said:

“The UK is transforming into a nation of cyclists. We know that this is fantastic news for our health and our wallets, but now we’ve found it’s great for our careers too. Here is irrefutable proof that encouraging cycling could save the economy millions of pounds too.”

Cyclescheme.co.uk is part of the Government’s programme to offer tax efficient financing options to companies and their workers to finance bikes for commuting. The scheme, which has over 2,000 bike shops participating, claims to have helped reduce the cost of over 400,000 bikes for commuters so far.

Schemes like these clearly have a role to play, but a bigger picture seems to be emerging in which public transport is placed at the heart of planning policies. The health of the nation, in more senses than one, would appear to depend on it.



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