Active travel – safer than you might think?


Active travel has significant health benefits. Among youth, walking or cycling to school is associated with higher cardiorespiratory fitness and healthier body composition. Among adults, using active commuting modes decreases risks of obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and premature mortality.

Compared to other European countries, Finnish children and adolescents engage in active school transport quite often – especially during spring and autumn. However, only 10% of Finnish adults walk or cycle to work for more than 30 minutes a day, which is similar to active commuting rates of the car-dependent United States. Therefore, a key question is why we do not use active travel modes more often and all year round.

Perceived barriers to physical activity

There are various perceived barriers to physical activity, and they can be explored, for example, via individual, interpersonal, environmental, and cultural dimensions. Despite the multidimensional approaches, the most typical barriers are lack of time or support (e.g., family, friends) as well as different physical limitations (e.g., obesity, injuries).

Compared to leisure-time physical activity, perceived traffic safety is highlighted as a determinant of active commuting. If an adult perceives that traffic around the living environment is dangerous, use of walking or cycling for school transport may decrease among youth as well. Then again, how concerned should we be about traffic safety in Finland?

Not much is known about the safety of active school transport

In Finland, approximately three deaths and 380 less severe injuries occur during travels to and from school every year. When exploring the number of accidents per one million trips, walking and cycling appear to be the safest transport modes – moped being the most dangerous. On the other hand, if we look at the injury rates per kilometres travelled, cyclists and motorized transport users (e.g., car or bus) face less accidents than pedestrians. However, these statistics only include accidents in which motorized vehicles have been involved. Therefore, the actual number of minor school transport accidents is substantially higher.

Driving children to school also increases the amount of motorized traffic around the school areas, leading to higher number of dangerous traffic situations. Although in some cases it is certainly justified to take kids to school by car, parents are most likely doing a disservice for their offspring in the long run.

Active commuting has its own risks

Compared to active school transport, health risks of active travel have been studied more widely. Active commuters, especially cyclists, are more predisposed to traffic injuries, fine particles, and noise than car users.

In the UK, a large longitudinal study observed that commuting by bicycle was associated with higher risk of injury-related hospital admissions than walking or using non-active commuting modes. Nonetheless, they also estimated that individual and population health benefits from increased cycling, such as decreased number of cancers, cardiovascular disease, and premature death, would be greater than the risks. Walking to work was found to be as safe as commuting by car or public transport.

Health benefits of active commuting also seem to outweigh the risks of inhaled pollutants – at least in terms of years of life expectancy. Regarding noise, no similar active commuting-specific comparisons have been made.

Slipping hazard?

Risk-benefit analyses of active travel have not taken wintertime slipping injuries into account. However, we do know that active commuting-related injuries peak between November and March when many incautious adults get surprised by the icy roads. While there are no similar statistics regarding active school transport, slipping accidents can also be considered as a nuisance for children and adolescents.

There are various ways how one can prepare for the challenges of frosty mornings. For example, cycling gets safer by using studded bike tyres, and pedestrians can reduce the risk of slipping by being equipped with studded or friction shoes. Reducing walking or cycling speeds can decrease the risk of icy accidents as well. Furthermore, adequate wintertime cycle and walking lane maintenance is essential for successful active travel promotion during the snowy months.

Our CLIMATE NUDGE research team explores the risks, benefits, and determinants of active travel in Finland. In terms of safety, we will specifically focus on slipping injuries. The findings can be utilized in the development of traffic safety strategies at regional and national levels.


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