Cambridgeshire ‘guided busway’ encouraging people to be more active on the commute

Photo: Sean Hickin

Photo: Sean Hickin

The bus might seem like a natural enemy of the vulnerable cyclist. But in Cambridgeshire, a ‘guided busway’ is in fact encouraging more cycling and helping commuters to become more active on their way to work. This is according to a new study from the University of Cambridge, funded by the National Institute for Health Research and published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The guided busway, commissioned by Cambridgeshire County Council and opened in 2011, provides a dedicated track that excludes other traffic, meaning that buses can keep to their schedules even during rush hours. It runs from St Ives into Cambridge and out to Trumpington via the Biomedical Campus. The project has provided a new bus network, two new park-and-ride sites at Longstanton and St Ives, and a traffic-free path for pedestrians and cyclists along the busway.

Supporting walking, cycling and public transport can help people to lead more active lives, reducing the risk of diabetes, heart disease and other health problems. Developments like the busway provide a ‘living laboratory’ where researchers can study the effects of changing the environment when randomised controlled trials are not possible.

This independent scientific study was led by the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, in collaboration with University College London and the University of East Anglia. Researchers followed 469 commuters over time and assessed changes in their activity patterns before and after the opening of the busway. The latest results show that people living closer to the busway were more likely to increase the time they spent cycling on the commute than those living further away. These results follow others published earlier this year, in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, which showed a reduction in car use on the commute attributable to the busway. Interviews showed how commuters found the guided bus service convenient and accessible and appreciated the new traffic-free path. Others found the ticketing system confusing to begin with and disliked the lack of lighting along the path, but measures have been taken to address these issues.

The researchers also found that the largest effect on physical activity on the journey to work was seen in those commuters who were least active before the busway opened. This suggests that the busway could help shift activity patterns in the population at large, rather than just encouraging those who are already active to do a little more. Importantly, the study found no evidence that people taking up more active commuting compensated by reducing their leisure time physical activities.

Dr Jenna Panter, the lead researcher working on this study at the MRC Epidemiology Unit, said: “These findings provide new evidence to support changes to our transport systems as part of a public health strategy to support a more active way of life. People might naturally think of cycle lanes as part of these changes – but this research suggests that we need to look at the wider infrastructure as well.”

Dr David Ogilvie, the principal investigator who led the overall study, also at the MRC Epidemiology Unit added: “Although redesigning our towns and cities in this way may seem an obvious thing to do, the health benefits of doing this have rarely been tested in practice. Ours is one of the few studies to have done this, and it shows an effect of the busway even after taking account of a range of other factors that influence how people travel to work.”

Dr Liz Robin, Director of Public Health for Cambridgeshire, said: “This study reinforces the wider public health role of Councils, showing the real impact of transport planning on our residents’ day-to-day level of physical activity. Increased levels of routine physical activity will undoubtedly have a positive impact on health.”

Notes

  • Jenna Panter, Eva Heinen, Roger Mackett and David Ogilvie. The impact of new transport infrastructure on walking, cycling and physical activity. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2015.09.021
  • Other relevant recent papers:
    • Eva Heinen, Jenna Panter, Roger Mackett and David Ogilvie. Changes in mode of travel to work: a natural experimental study of new infrastructure. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 2015; 12: 81. www.ijbnpa.org/content/12/1/81
    • Jo Kesten, Cornelia Guell, Simon Cohn and David Ogilvie. From the concrete to the intangible: understanding the diverse experiences and impacts of new infrastructure. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 2015; 12: 72. www.ijbnpa.org/content/12/1/72
  • The Commuting and Health in Cambridge study was developed by David Ogilvie, Simon Griffin, Andy Jones and Roger Mackett.
  • The National Institute for Health Research Public Health Research (NIHR PHR) Programme was launched in autumn 2008. It commissions research to evaluate public health interventions, providing new knowledge on the benefits, costs, acceptability and wider effect of non-NHS interventions intended to improve the health of the public and reduce inequalities in health. The scope of the programme is multi-disciplinary and broad covering a range of public health interventions. The PHR Programme is funded by the NIHR, with contributions from the CSO in Scotland, NISCHR in Wales and the HSC R&D Division, Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland. www.nets.nihr.ac.uk/programmes/phr
  • The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is funded by the Department of Health to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research. Since its establishment in April 2006, the NIHR has transformed research in the NHS. It has increased the volume of applied health research for the benefit of patients and the public, driven faster translation of basic science discoveries into tangible benefits for patients and the economy, and developed and supported the people who conduct and contribute to applied health research. The NIHR plays a key role in the Government’s strategy for economic growth, attracting investment by the life-sciences industries through its world-class infrastructure for health research. Together, the NIHR people, programmes, centres of excellence and systems represent the most integrated health research system in the world. For further information, visit the NIHR website (www.nihr.ac.uk).
  • The articles described in this statement present independent research funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR or the Department of Health.