Promoting urban planning that advances health and everyday physical activity

The focus of the project was the challenges of urban planning and cycling infrastructure and to promote cycling as a healthy, economic, safe and environmentally friendly form of mobility. The economy of promoting cycling has been vital part of the project. Economic effects of increasing cycling can be calculated with the HEAT Tool (Health Economic Assessment Tool), developed by WHO.  The denumerable financial benefits of cycling comes from the annual effects on reduced mortality. Financial analysis can be used in cities in urban infrastructure planning and they can provide arguments for future investments and strategies as well as change of actions and administrational routine regarding the conditions affecting everyday physical activities. 

Training and support for HEAT calculations for the project cities

Turku University of Applied Sciences organized HEAT Tool training days and support for making calculations with the tool for the project cities and regions. The cities and regions accumulated experience of using the tool, analyzing the effects, and utilizing the results as well as how to get inhabitants to participate in city and transport planning particularly concerning walking and cycling.

The projects’ training sessions were planned using the best possible expertise. At the very beginning of the project, a training session was organized, designed with two members of the WHO HEAT Core group, which is responsible for the tool and its development. Part of the training was executed by experts from WSP Finland Oy, specialized in using HEAT and interpreting its results. These experts also assisted in the practical training of the tool. During the project, the Swedish partner Cykelfrämjandet has also held a short workshop on the tool for the 26 municipalities in the Stockholm region.

Increasing cycling would bring cost savings and health benefits

In the project, the financial benefits of cycling have been studied and calculated in all project target cities and areas, the Turku core region in Finland, City of Tartu in Estonia, City of Jūrmala, in Latvia and Stockholm county in Sweden.

In the Turku core region, based on the calculations, an increase of cycling by 2 percentage points in the modal shift would produce benefits of almost 20,8 million euros in eleven years. In Stockholm county, a cycling mode share growth from 7 to 20 percent, would result in benefits of 596 million euros per year from the corresponding reduction in premature deaths. In Tartu and in Jurmala the trip length growth per person was calculated. In Tartu, it was calculated that if cycling trips per person per day would be 0,35 km longer in the year 2030 than in year 2019, the benefits would be 16,7 million euros in eleven years . In Jurmala it was calculated that if cycling trips per person per day would be 0,1 km longer in the year 2029 than in year 2019, the benefits would be 10,9 million euros in ten years.

The World Health Organization (WHO) developes continuously Health Economic Assessment Tool (HEAT)

The Health Economic Assessment Tool (HEAT) was developed by WHO to be used by transport planners in estimating the financial benefits of walking and cycling. In transport planning, the estimation of financial benefits is a central part of planning a project. However, assessing health effects has not been possible before the introduction of HEAT.

A separate body, the HEAT Core group, has been responsible for the development of the tool. Making assessments about health effects is a complicated process but WHO’s work has enabled the creation of a robust, user-friendly and research-based online application for making these assessments. To establish a scientific basis for the tool, an extensive analysis of peer-reviewed population level research/material was made.

The Nordic countries and certain other European countries, among others, have played a significant part in the development of the HEAT. The tool was first published in 2007 and last updated in 2017. It includes a manual and separate web-based calculation applications for walking and cycling. Manuals can be found also in other languages, including Finnish (published in 2013), so it is easy to get acquainted with the tool. HEAT has been, and is, used mainly in Europe.

At present, the use of HEAT is included in the official national guidelines in the UK and Sweden, among others. In Finland there are no official national directives for using HEAT, but the Finnish Transport Infrastructure Agency encourages and promotes the use of the tool in transport planning.

Effectiveness and economic benefits can be calculated

HEAT can be used to calculate the annual effects on mortality and the corresponding financial benefits of walking and cycling. The tool takes into consideration the effects of physical activity, air pollution, crash risk on mortality. In the latest version, also carbon emissions  are taken into account in the calculation.

The user can choose which factors, in addition to physical activity, are taken into account in the calculation. The calculation requires both population level information and city- or region-specific data from nationwide or regional passenger traffic surveys. The application itself is easy to use once the required data has been collected. However, to correctly interpret the results, knowledge of both the nature of the data used and the benefit-cost analyses of the project in question is required. 

Beyond a reduction in mortality and changes in emissions, something likewise has become a subject of conversation is the assessment of the total benefits of cycling, termed bikenomics by some. Part of the assessment are investment and maintenance costs, travel time savings, travelling expenses, taxes and fees, health effects and environmental effects (e.g. carbon dioxide emissions).

Bikenomics has been utilized, for example, in planning the renovation of the street Hämeenkatu in the City of Helsinki. Assessing projects this way results in more diverse information on the effectiveness of the assessed actions. The problem with this new method is that it has not, as of yet, seen much use, so more experiences of both assessment and monitoring of results are required. The method is being further developed in, among others, the CIVITAS Handshake project, in which the City of Helsinki takes part.

Assessing the financial benefits of walking and cycling

In Finland, in the latest walking and cycling promotion program, published in 2018 by the Ministry of Transport and Communications, it was stated that increasing cycling by 20% would amount to 1.1 billion euros in health benefits. The same increase in walking would result in benefits of 3.3 billion euros.

Concerning Helsinki, it has been calculated that by annually investing 20 million euros in high-quality bicycle paths, the city would recoup eight euros for every euro spent, in the form of healt benefits, environmental benefits and time saved. As to costs, the calculation took into account accident costs, investments, residual value and maintenance. The HEAT calculation was also one part in these calculations. In Finland, besides Helsinki, calculations with HEAT have been made in 14 other cities or municipalities in Finland, but not with similar accuracy. Helsinki has also taken actions based on the results, making significantly greater investments in cycling, and intends to retain the achieved level.

The effectiveness of HEAT calculations in strategic planning, infrastructure investments and decision making

In connection with the project’s calculations, previous calculations and how they were used in planning work in Finnish cities and municipalities was researched. It was observed that although HEAT calculations had been made, their utilization was mainly limited to presenting the results in, for example, a municipality’s cycling program. No direct information of the use of the calculations in broader strategic planning was found. It was decided that an interview study on the use of HEAT calculations should be conducted for a few cities.

The cities chosen for the interview study were Helsinki, Jyväskylä, Tampere and Rauma, and the interviewees were either transport planners or the persons responsible for HEAT calculations. Because HEAT is intended to support the work of transport planners, the calculations in the cities were carried out at the initiative of transport planning and based on its needs.

Of the cities interviewed, Helsinki has utilized the results of HEAT calculations most extensively, making use of them both in investment programs and planning transport and maintenance programs. The central finding of the study, in the case of Helsinki, can be considered to be, that because the HEAT calculations enabled a comprehensive view of the total benefits of improving the cycling infrastructure, significant increases to the funding of cycling infrastructure, and measures related to it, were made.  In the other interviewed cities, the benefits in improving cycling infrastructure management were more moderate.

Everyday physical activity has diminished

The time spent on exercise in Finland generally has grown, but despite that, the total amount of exercise has gone down along with the reduction of everyday physical activity. According to the Finnish 2018 LIITU-study, which investigated the physical activity of children and young people, only a third get the amount of exercise recommended (1-2 hours per day) by the UKK institute (Centre for Health Promotion Research). The share of children who get little exercise has remained the same in the studies done in 2016 and 2018, but the time spent inactive [ESC1] and the time spent in front of a screen have increased.

Also in Sweden, less than 20 percent children reach the recommendation for physical activity from the WHO (one hour or more per day). However, the number of children who are exercising at least four times a week has grown since the mid 1980s’. When it comes to adults in Sweden, there is clear differences between different parts of the country. Also, education is a clear factor in adults’ physical activity: the more education, the more physical activity.

Trips to school have an especially significant effect on the everyday physical activity of children and young people

In Finland, school trips play a central role in the physical activity of children and young people. In studies regarding school trips, it was noticed that the travels can constitute as much as half of the daily physical activity. It increases endurance and among other things also contributes to a lower risk of heart disease. Active school trips are supported in part by the retained density of the school network and in part by pupils and students not having the possibility of driving a car themselves. To preserve and increase the share of walking and cycling of school trips necessitates that average trip length does not increase and the common practice of driving children to school is not continued or more widely adopted.

In Sweden, in a study of childrens’ and young adults’ cycling, the result showed that childrens’ cycling has decreased continuously during the last thirty years’ time. School trips made by cycle are only half of the amount they were in the 1990s’. Children cycle less especially in their spare time and travels to recreational activities are longer and made by car. Cycling to school has also diminished as school trips have become longer in general. The greater decrease of cycling of older children is explained by longer trips to school and trips are made by public transport instead of cycling. Also, the possibility of being active is influenced by parents and traffic system.

Traffic education and, for example, rules pertaining to school trip cycling also have an effect on children’s attitudes toward physical activity. The significance of the travel mode choice of children and young people in general is greater than their share of the population, the habits learned at a young age reflect the choices made later in life.

The everyday physical activity of working age people is affected by multiple practical reasons

Finnish studies regarding the physical activity of working people have observed that exercise during work-related travel does not reduce other physical activity but rather works as an addition to it. Work-related travel is a significant part of daily physical activity. The greatest potential for travel mode change in work-related travel is in under five-kilometer commutes and work trips. However, if this modal shift is possible, is often dependent on the life situation of the person in question.

Societal and employer incentives also have a notable influence on what mode of travel working age people choose. If a workplace has free or very inexpensive parking for cars, those who walk or cycle are in an unequal position from a financial perspective. The incentives for commute and work trip cycling and walking should be further advanced to be equal with those of personal car usage. One possibility to develop commuting with cycle is that employer provides the cycle for employee.

The City of Jönköping, in Sweden, have made developments in using bicycles provided by the employer among the city personnel since 2016. [ESC1] It is organized by the employer but the employees pay for it from their salary (pre tax). The service was successful from the beginning and after the first year, Jönköping has developed the service systematically as a part of their strategy concerning well-being and climate issues. Other Swedish cities have then followed the example of Jönköping and are providing similar schemes.

Inactivity has significant costs

The benefits of walking and cycling to health and well-being for the individual and so, by extension, to society, are according to long-term studies, indisputable. Walking and cycling are also promoted because increasing them would help to achieve more sustainable and environmentally friendly traffic and climate policies.

Cycling and walking has no emissions, makes no noise and takes up little space. Raising the general respect these transport modes have and motivating the increase of walking and cycling are crucial matters. According to Finnish national national objectives, the state and municipalities should further expand co-operation for the advancement of walking and cycling, redirect funding appropriately and aim to unite the urban structure.

Inactivity causes substantial costs to the national economy in Finland. Studies suggest estimates ranging from hundreds of millions to a few billion euros. The cost estimations in Sweden are of the same magnitude. The costs consist of direct and indirect costs such as health care costs, reduced productivity, inability to work and premature deaths. How personal health and vitality are experienced is central. And as previously brought up, employers should thus invest in the work-related travel of their employees for, among other things, the savings accrued from less sick leave.

Improving the possibilities for everyday physical activity in the winter is important

One clear challenge for everyday physical activity is walking and cycling in the long winter season. Studies have shown that many are afraid of falling while cycling or walking even though studded tires and shoes certainly ease this fear.

Good and well-timed maintenance of pedestrian and cycle routes is essential in increasing walking and cycling in the winter. Especially commute cycling suffers from inferior maintenance of the bicycle paths. Electric bicycles, for their part, alleviate the problem and make longer trips possible. In Oulu, Finland, and several Swedish cities high quality maintenance routes have affected wintertime cycling positively.

As a winter maintenance method, sweep-salting has been used in Sweden since 1999 in the City of Linköping. The inspiration came from Denmark and especially from the City of Odense. In Denmark the method has been used since the 1980s’ with good results. Despite the much better quality of maintenance, the use of the method was quite moderate until winter 2013/2014 when the City of Stockholm started to use sweep-salting. After that many other cites have become interested in the method and it is now in use in many cities throughout the country.

In Finland in Helsinki, sweep-salting has been used for winter maintenance since 2015 with good results and the area maintained by sweep-salting has been broadened. Turku also has experience with sweep-salting winter cycling test routes and the results have been encouraging. It has been shown that the improved maintenance in Turku has increased cycling on a specific route by 39%. This experiment has already led to integrating the maintenance method to the city’s basic operation and the improved winter maintenance will be expanded through competitive tendering in the coming years.

Urban planning and infrastructure need to support everyday physical activity

In addition to cycling infrastructure and maintenance, urban planning and urban structure have a central role in advancing cycling. Urban structure significantly impacts, among other things, the length of trips.

In zoning one should comprehensively examine the effects of traffic on commercial services, the placement of public services and leisure activities. It is of high relevance to take into account that the urban structure be “human sized”, to understand the bicycle as a vehicle and to consider walking and cycling as their own modes of transport.

In recent years, municipalities have drawn up plans for walking and cycling and executed concrete measures according to the new Finnish national guidelines, action plans and strategies. Attitudes toward walking and cycling have become increasingly positive.

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