Scotland has been described as the ‘sick man of Europe’, with chronic health problems that cut life expectancy and exacerbate inequality. Active travel is key to tackling so many of these problems.

Chronic illnesses

  • Globally, physical inactivity is responsible for 21-25% of the global disease burden of some cancers, 27% of diabetes and 30% of heart disease (Travelwest Essential Evidence on a Page No. 140).
  • The World Health Organization estimates that physical inactivity levels in Europe could be reduced by 27% through changes to the environment including pedestrian and bicycle friendly land use (World Health Organization, Preventing Disease through Healthy Environments: Towards an estimate of the environmental burden of disease).
  • The NHS recommends 150 minutes of exercise a week to combat and prevent the recurrence of depression, especially mild depression.
  • Higher levels of fitness in middle age are associated with lower levels of dementia in later life (Travelwest Essential Evidence on a Page, No. 108)


  • Switching from driving to work to either using public transport or active travel is associated with a significant reduction in weight; switching to using a car is associated with a significant weight gain (Travelwest Essential Evidence on a Page, No. 135).
  • The decline in walking in the post-war era accounts for much if not all of the recent increase in obesity; if someone who uses their car as their main means of transport walked as much as someone without a car (an extra 56 minutes a week) they could avoid a weight gain of over 2 stone in the course of a decade (Davis et al., Unfit for Purpose: How car use fuels climate change and obesity)


  • The impact of urban air pollution falls most heavily on the poorest since they tend to live in the areas with the highest traffic levels (they are also disproportionately affected by collisions and disadvantaged by policies favouring the private motor car) (Travelwest Essential Evidence on a Page, No. 59)
  • Poor air quality is estimated to kill 3,500 Scots each year (Friends of the Earth Scotland, based on figures from DEFRA), while fine particles (PM2.5), such as are emitted from diesel engines, are responsible for over 2000 premature deaths in Scotland a year (calculated by FOE based on figures from Public Health England). ¬†Traffic is responsible for 80% of the nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in our urban centres.
  • Two-thirds of asthma sufferers report they get worse when pollution levels are high (Asthma UK, Pollution)

More evidence on the health benefits of activity can be found here, from Sustrans. The impact of urban air pollution has been collated here by Friends of the Earth Scotland.

Download our briefing note for a digest of some of the best evidence for investment in active travel – and how best to bring it about.