Takeaways from the Oxford course “Global Challenges in Transport: Health and Wellbeing”

Heidi Auvinen (VTT) & Katariina Kiviluoto (FFRC)

In December 2019, we took part in the “Health and Wellbeing” course organized by the Transport Studies Unit (TSU) at the University of Oxford. The course is one part of the Oxford Leadership Programme “Global Challenges in Transport” that is targeted at professionals ranging from business and policy to research. The guest speakers of the course were top experts from different fields and regions of the world, bringing in their research and practical knowledge from various disciplines and sectors. The interactive sessions allowed fruitful dialogue between speakers and participants, and some time was also dedicated for the participants to share their respective know-how and insights and collect ideas to the challenges they work with.

The four-day course was an intense learning experience, covering impacts of the current transport systems on health and wellbeing from a number of viewpoints, most importantly personal wellbeing, public health, the economy and the environment. The topics included physical inactivity, active modes, life style choices, emissions, social and global inequalities, impact assessment and traffic safety. The overall objective of the course was not only to introduce us to excellent speakers, but also to make us critically reflect on key concepts such as mobility, wellbeing, inclusion, efficiency and development.

The course helped us both, a foresight researcher and a futures researcher focusing on sustainable transport, to better understand behavioural and societal aspects as well as impacts of walking and cycling. Many of the theoretical frames, practical results and tools introduced resonate with our work, and we are looking forward to putting them into good use in the STYLE project. In the following, we will summarize our key takeaways from the course under three main topics in the context of walking and cycling: (1) motivations and behavioural aspects, (2) health and impact assessment and (3) policies and promotion measures.

Motivations and behavioural aspects

During the course, the richness and multiformity of walking and cycling became more and more evident. Experiences and practices differ widely, and, for example, different types of walking encompass divergent meanings. The challenge in transport planning and mobility management is to identify and understand that concepts such as walking may cover everything from busy commuters to wandering tourists or visually impaired individuals. We cannot address the “average citizen” only: providing services for diverse needs and users is crucial in order to ensure an inclusive environment for all. Likewise, efficiency, or getting from A to B as fast as possible, should not be the only value to consider when planning for walking and cycling. A central issue is also the encounters and interactions in traffic situations between transport system users of active as well as other modes. The cityscape is a concoction of different rhythms, different capabilities and different speeds, and various solutions and planning efforts should aim to embrace this diversity instead of assuming uniformity. (See e.g. Middleton 2018)

Children, and especially parents driving their kids to school, was one recurrent topic addressed during the course. It is a prime example of a cultural change, as in many parts of the world children are in growing numbers being driven to school by parents who in their own youth walked or cycled. Reasons behind this modern behavior are manifold, including safety, distances, convenience, family dynamics, social relationships, time use, school politics, etc., and addressing these is a challenge. There are no simple solutions; however, understanding that there are complex dynamics behind the choices families make is a good place to start, if we are to change practices. (See e.g. Frater et al 2017)

Health and impact assessment

The positive and negative impacts of transport, especially active modes, were in the heart of the course, and an introduction and hands-on tutorial on the health economic assessment tool (HEAT) for walking and cycling was given. The tool covers physical activity, air pollution, injuries and carbon impact assessments that can be performed to study e.g. current value of cycling and walking, compare before and after situations or evaluate costs and benefits of projects regardless of their scope. The HEAT tool is valuable in monetizing the health benefits of walking and cycling making these benefits tangible enough for practical decision-making. It is easier to argue, for example, for a cycling infrastructure investment if health benefits can be expressed clearly in euros. (See e.g. Kahlmeier et al 2017)

The irony is that while active and sustainable modes of transport have potential to reduce air pollution, those walking and cycling are in many cases the most exposed user groups to suffer from bad air quality, especially in cities. Health and wellbeing impacts and co-benefits of walking and cycling, quantified as well as perceived, do however in most cases and locations outweigh risks associated with air pollution, accidents, etc. Thus, choosing to walk or cycle has, according to current scientific evidence, substantial health benefits even in busy downtown areas. (See e.g. Avila-Palencia et al. 2018)

Policies and promotion measures

The motivations as well as approaches to promoting active modes vary a lot, and the course offered complementary outlooks on many of those. For example, sustainable development goals (SDGs) were discussed as a wider frame, and levels of aspirations were mapped regarding wellbeing and health of the individual, family, community, city, region and nation. Decision-makers across domains of transport, health, zoning, etc. need to co-operate, if we are to solve the challenges we are currently facing. (See e.g. De Vos et al. 2019 and Tapp et al. 2016)

Wellbeing was addressed as a social process and fluid notion, which is in many ways improved by walking and cycling. The link between wellbeing and walking and cycling is shown also, in terms of how people rank different transport modes: active modes are typically perceived as the most pleasant ones. Thus, underlining the potential walking and cycling have in generating overall wellbeing could be more pronounced. (See e.g. De Vos et al. 2019 and Tapp et al. 2016)

Promotion measures and approaches are a complex topic, and planners face many unexpected challenges. Infrastructure availability is one important prerequisite, and success factors and learning points were shared by the speakers. For example, infrastructure investments are a sensitive matter concerning how their assumed benefits are spread: investments have been proven to often bring value to those who are already better off rather than close any gaps. What comes to mobility management and behavioral aspects, it is easier and more efficient to support adoption of sustainable choices from the beginning (such as making new urban developments walkable and cyclable) than to reverse existing routines (such as persuade car reliant neighbourhoods to switch to cycling on the newly introduced bike lane. (See e.g. Mueller et al. 2018 and Delbosc et al. 2019).

One key takeaway from the course was that we, as researchers, should remember to question and look behind the obvious. Concepts such as wellbeing, walkability or mobility are not as clear-cut as they seem, but are filled with many underlying notions, hidden power relations and mindsets. We should also keep in mind to whom we are building or transforming our sustainably mobile and healthy cities – there are many needs waiting to be fulfilled and many voices waiting to be heard. (See e.g. Nordbakke & Schwanen 2014, Middleton 2018, Wignall et al. 2019)


Avila-Palencia, I., Int Panis, L., Dons, E., Gaupp-Berghausen, M., Raser, E., Götschi, T., … Nieuwenhuijsen, M. J. (2018). The effects of transport mode use on self-perceived health, mental health, and social contact measures: A cross-sectional and longitudinal study. Environment International, 120, 199–206. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2018.08.002

De Vos, J., Schwanen, T., Van Acker, V., & Witlox, F. (2019). Do satisfying walking and cycling trips result in more future trips with active travel modes? An exploratory study. International Journal of Sustainable Transportation, 13(3), 180–196. https://doi.org/10.1080/15568318.2018.1456580

Delbosc, A., McDonald, N., Stokes, G., Lucas, K., Circella, G., & Lee, Y. (2019). Millennials in cities: Comparing travel behaviour trends across six case study regions. Cities, 90, 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cities.2019.01.023

Frater, J., Williams, J., Hopkins, D., Flaherty, C., Moore, A., Kingham, S., … Mandic, S. (2017). A tale of two New Zealand cities: Cycling to school among adolescents in Christchurch and Dunedin. Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, 49, 205–214. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trf.2017.06.018

Health Economic Assessment Tool (HEAT) for walking and cycling by WHO/Europe https://www.heatwalkingcycling.org/

Kahlmeier, S., Götschi, T., Cavill, N., Fernandez, A. C., Brand, C., Rueda, D. R., … Racioppi, F. (2017). Health economic assessment tools (HEAT) for walking and for cycling: Methods and user guide on physical activity, air pollution, injuries and carbon impact assessments. http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/352963/Heat.pdf?ua=1

Middleton, J. (2018). The socialities of everyday urban walking and the ‘right to the city.’ Urban Studies, 55(2), 296–315. https://doi.org/10.1177/0042098016649325

Mueller, N., Rojas-Rueda, D., Salmon, M., Martinez, D., Ambros, A., Brand, C., … Nieuwenhuijsen, M. (2018). Health impact assessment of cycling network expansions in European cities. Preventive Medicine, 109, 62–70. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ypmed.2017.12.011

Nordbakke, S. & Schwanen, T. (2014) Well-being and Mobility: ATheoretical Framework and Literature Review Focusing on Older People. Mobilities, 9:1, 104-129 https://doi.org/10.1080/17450101.2013.784542

Tapp, A., Davis, A., Nancarrow, C., & Jones, S. (2016). Great Britain adults’ opinions on cycling: Implications for policy. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, 89, 14–28. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tra.2016.05.001

Wignall, R., McQuaidb, K., Gough, K., Esson, J. (2019) We built this city’: Mobilities, urban livelihoods and social infrastructure in the lives of elderly Ghanaians. Geoforum, 103, 75-84. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2019.03.022

Photo: Katariina Kiviluoto

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