In 1949 Jerry Morris made one of the most significant discoveries in post-war health: he established a link between lack of exercise and ill-health – specifically cardiovascular disease. His research on London bus drivers and conductors showed that though both jobs were often filled by men (it tended to be men in those days) from similar social backgrounds and status, there was a discrepancy in the heart-attack rate between the two jobs.
Morris found that that the disease was directly linked to the amount of physical exercise each role involved: whereas the sedentary nature of driving buses made it particularly prevalent among drivers, continually climbing the stairs of the London double-decker buses made less likely among conductors by comparison. The study was published in The Lancet in 1953 and Morris also went on to apply his research to the postal trade, comparing postmen who walked and cycled with their desk-bound post office clerk colleagues. It will also come as no surprise that the postmen who walked and cycled had the fewer heart attacks.
Fast forward nearly 70 years and we haven’t made as much progress as we should have in addressing Morris’s findings. In particular, making best use of the opportunities presented through walking, cycling and active transport. Last week the Mayor of London published his new Mayor’s Transport Strategy (MTS), the latest in a line of strategies aimed at getting people walking and cycling more. But is it any different from all the previous transport strategies?
I believe it is.
What makes MTS different is that it aims to put people at the heart of the strategy through the Healthy Streets approach. This approach, developed by Lucy Saunders, seeks to prioritise human health and experience in planning of streets and cities. It includes a range of indicators that assess issues such as noise, air quality, safety and walking experience, all with a view to encouraging people to use cars less and to walk, cycle and use public transport more. The adoption of the Healthy Streets approach in the MTS means we now have a framework by which we can shape our streets to maximise benefits to those that use them (or those that might be more inclined to use them were they more welcoming environments). Transport for London have also published a toolkit to help put Healthy Streets into practice.
But crucial to the success of the new MTS is that it also seeks to ensure that Londoners have a good public transport experience, including disabled and older people. If the experience is positive for those facing the greatest challenges, then it is safe to assume that it will largely be positive everyone.
The MTS has also set a target of 80 percent of all trips in London to be made on foot, by cycle or via public transport by 2041. If we are to bring about significant levels of behaviour change to get people more active, then active travel is arguably the single best thing we can do. Even just getting people out of cars and on to public transport is a start – an average journey on public transport involves at least 8–15 minutes of physical activity, whether walking or cycling. Every small change helps.
Finally, to return to Jerry Morris, I once had the pleasure of meeting him at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). At the time he was emeritus professor there, and in his nineties; had just returned from a skiing trip (I think he was being serious) and was talking very passionately about an article on cycling in that week’s New Yorker. Upon hearing my accent (we were both from Glasgow) Jerry took great delight in testing my knowledge of the Red Clydesiders (on which I failed miserably). Jerry was an inspirational man who never shrank from facing challenging social problems head on; I wonder if even he would have foreseen that after his groundbreaking research, we would still be trying to overcome the problem of sedentary behaviour. Let us hope that the MTS has the impact that it has set out to achieve – London Sport will certainly be working to support its aims.