Active Travel in an Urban Context: a Tale of Two Cities

Active Travel in an Urban Context: a Tale of Two Cities


Bruce Whyte, Glasgow Centre for Population Health


Taking a health perspective, this paper explores the policy context, plans and data relating to active sustainable travel (principally walking and cycling) in Scotland's two largest cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow.


Taking a health perspective, this paper focuses on active travel (principally walking and cycling) in two Scottish cities and explores the policy context, plans and trend data.

In terms of policy, there are clear links between active travel, health equity, air quality, sustainability and liveability. However, there are challenges in integrating these policies, getting policy into practice and achieving sufficient investment to make a difference. We compare approaches taken to promoting active travel in Scotland’s two major cities, Edinburgh, the capital, and Glasgow, the most populous city.

Active modes of travel such as walking and cycling provide regular, moderate physical activity (PA), protecting against cardiovascular disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. PA can improve mental wellbeing and is associated with better cognitive function among older people. Research on the health economic benefits of walking and cycling, using the WHO HEAT tool, provides further evidence. Active travel can help reduce car use, thus reducing air pollution and climate change emissions, and can contribute to more vibrant, liveable cities – but this requires safe infrastructure.

Policy context:
The Scottish Government recognises that active travel can contribute to increasing physical activity at both an individual and at a population level. Scotland has a physical activity strategy and policy specifically focused on active travel, including a national walking strategy and a cycling action plan that envisages that “by 2020, 10% of all journeys taken in Scotland will be by bicycle”. There is recognition of the contribution active travel can make to addressing obesity, climate change and air quality, and awareness of the social and economic benefits of active travel.

Active travel trends:
Across Scotland, levels of car use have risen consistently over the last 45 years. The car has become the principal mode of travel to work (69% in 2011), while levels of walking and bus use have halved (both 11% in 2011). However, Edinburgh has started to buck this trend. Between 2001 and 2011, levels of walking, cycling and bus use for commuting have risen as car use has declined; and fewer people in Edinburgh now own a car. In contrast, in Glasgow, a post-industrial city with high levels of social deprivation, car commuting continued to rise as walking levels reduced over the same period. Nevertheless, in Glasgow cycling levels have started to rise (from a low base – 1.6% of commuters travelled by bicycle in 2011). A notable consequence of the rise in cycling, observed in both cities, has been a parallel rise in cyclist casualties (up 25% over 10 years).

Innovative practice and policy:
In Edinburgh and Glasgow, cycling development has been given a higher profile and, arguably, greater priority. Local cycling groups have been effective in lobbying, particularly in Edinburgh, where the local authority committed to spending 8% of its 2015/16 transport budget on cycling projects. Edinburgh has also approved a new reduced speed limit of 20mph (approx. 32kph) across the local authority on residential roads, on shopping streets and in the city centre.
Glasgow has until recently been less committed to reducing road speeds, although in January 2016 it approved a 20mph zone in its city centre. Glasgow has introduced new, safer infrastructure, including a footbridge across the river Clyde and a safe walking and cycling route from the west of the city to the city centre. Users perceive journeys on these routes to be safer, more pleasant and less stressful. Also, in preparation for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, Glasgow introduced a cycle hire scheme in the city, which was extended in 2015 and now covers much of the city centre. The success of the cycle hire scheme accompanied by new active travel infrastructure has contributed to higher levels of walking and cycling in the city. The city’s strategic plan for cycling aspires to create a city-wide cycling network but this will require significantly increased local and national funding.

Despite a generally positive policy environment and signs of progress in terms of increased walking and cycling in Glasgow and Edinburgh, car travel still dominates. Investment in active transport has risen in recent years in Scotland, but its share remains less than 2% of the total transport budget (around 9 Euros per person). There are many UK and international examples that show that the development of safe traffic-free infrastructure has led to increased levels of cycling and walking. However, levels of active travel are low in urban Scotland and there will need to be a significant shift in expenditure and priorities for this to rise.


Association for European Transport