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Posts Tagged ‘cycling’

by Dr Geraint Lewis

For the past eight years, I have had the sometimes-dubious pleasure of living in London’s King’s Cross neighbourhood.  Being so close to the centre of the city, I do my best to cycle as often as I can around town. However, my repertoire of safe cycle routes is rather limited, and I dread straying too far away from my familiar routes and ending up somewhere where I have to battle my way home through the frenzied London traffic. The result is that I cycle less often, and less far than I would like to.

To be fair, these days there is a wealth of websites and apps that could help me navigate safely around London by bike.  The trouble, though, is that the safe bike routes themselves are just too complicated.

Take an example. Let’s say I wanted to cycle from my home in King’s Cross to St. Thomas’s hospital near Waterloo.  Although I know the walking route I would take to get there, I have no idea how reach the hospital safely by bike.  Go to the Transport for London  (TfL) website and it suggests a route that involves no fewer than 57 stages—as compared with two stages for the same journey by tube (Piccadilly line to Leicester Square, then the Northern line to Waterloo).

Indeed, London’s cycle network is so complicated that TfL appears incapable of displaying it as a complete map on its website.  Instead cyclists must order 14 paper maps to cover the whole city, plus a separate PDF for each of the new cycle superhighways that are currently being built.  Even where individuals have gallantly tried to produce simplified bike maps of London, the end result still bears too much resemblance to a plate of spaghetti.

Other cities have had a go at creating much simpler cycle maps aimed at encouraging more people to cycle. In Edinburgh, for example, Mark Sydenham and Martin Baillie have developed a tube map for bikes.  But the reality is that Londoners, like the citizens of many large cities, actually use the public transport network as their “mental map” for getting around their city.

The idea that Tim Miller and I suggested is that planners should build a bike network that recreates this mental map we are all so familiar with.  London’s bike network would directly resemble the tube map; Newcastle’s would follow the metro map, and so on.  In the jargon, what we are calling for are cycle networks that are “homeomorphic” or “topologically equivalent” to their public transport network. So in London, the cycle network we would like to see built would join up every tube station using analogous bike lanes to the tube lines – sharing the same names, colour codes and destinations as the tube lines.

So in this new world, my journey from King’s Cross to St. Thomas’s would simply involve taking the “Piccadilly bike lane” to Leicester Square, and turning left to go down the “Northern bike lane” to Waterloo.

What would be the costs and benefits of this proposal? Clearly, to build a network of safe cycle routes would take a large, sustained investment.  It would require building tens of kilometres of off-road bike lanes and closing off a considerable number of streets to through vehicular traffic.

However, the London tube map is a fixed asset that will be with us for generations to come, so this expenditure should be viewed as a very long-term investment. Just as with the tube network’s 150 year history, we would need to start small and build up the cycle network slowly, bike lane by bike lane and tube stop by tube stop.

From a public health perspective, I suspect the benefits of this proposed scheme would be at least fivefold.  First, it would encourage more people, including visitors to the city, to make longer journeys across town because they would now have more confidence that they could get to where they were going and be able to find their way back in one piece.  Second, it could reduce fatalities if more cyclists used off-road cycle lanes and quiet roads that had been closed to through vehicular traffic.

Third, it would reduce the city’s carbon footprint. Fourth, it would encourage cross-modal journeys because the cycle network and the rail network would now be inextricably linked. But finally, and rather sneakily, we might be able to increase journey distances from point A to point B by designing cycle routes between tube stations that were slightly more circuitous than were strictly necessary.

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19 June 2010

In sultry heat, I join a continuous stream of people making their laborious way up the 392 steps to the mausoleum of Dr Sun Yat-sen. It’s beautifully situated on the slope of a wooded mountainside in a huge park in Nanjing, Eastern China.

Everyone is in holiday mood, stopping frequently to rest, drink and take snaps of each other against the backdrop of the splendid double-eaved sacrificial hall built a few years after Dr Sun’s death in 1925.

But as soon as they reach the sarcophagus, absolute silence descends in an atmosphere of deep awe and respect. Dr Sun is a much revered figure, considered to be the ‘Father of the Republic of China,’ honoured by Chinese people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

He qualified in medicine at the turn of the century, but soon gave up medicine for politics, plotting the overthrow of the Qing Emperor and helping to establish the fledgling republic. As its inaugural President he extolled three fundamental ‘Principles of the People’ inspired by Abraham Lincoln: One nation of the people – governed by the power of the people – for the welfare of the people.

Back at the conference I’m attending on public health in Asia and the Pacific Rim by the APRU World Institute, I think about the parallels between Dr Sun’s three principles and Michael Marmot’s basic tenets of a healthy society – one that upholds fairness, social justice and the pursuit of wellbeing.

Certainly, health inequalities is a recurring theme at the conference. There are huge disparities between the rich and the poor across the region – and between the cities and rural areas – and this is reflected in the disease patterns observed.

The conference theme is the epidemic of chronic, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the tiger economies of east Asia. This part of the world is now going through the escalation of cardiovascular disease we saw in the West about 40 years ago.

But it’s happening so fast here. Urbanisation is rampant – by 2020 China will have over 200 cities each boasting more than a million population. And this is coupled with globalisation, code for westernisation. Nearly every major city has its MacDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut. Smoking is on a roll – mostly western brands – and in many Asia-Pacific countries, notably China, it’s still allowed in public places.

As to physical activity, whilst it’s true that cycling is still a common means of transport – here in Nanjing for example there are dozens of pushbikes bunched together at the front of the traffic at every stoplight – nevertheless people are increasingly switching to scooters or cars. Air pollution is a big problem in China – not good for the lungs, especially if you’re on a bike. All in all, there can be little surprise that obesity, diabetes, stroke, coronary heart disease, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease rates are rocketing right across the region.

What’s more, although these health problems were first seen most among the better-off – the early adopters of western lifestyles – in recent years the problems have begun to extend down the social gradient, particularly among the urban poor.

Effective prevention and early diagnosis are clearly crucial – yet many Asia-Pacific countries have health systems skewed to favour hospital and specialist services, with little or no investment in health promotion or primary care. Although China for example has well developed communicable disease prevention and control systems, its approach to non-communicable disease is much less robust and its primary care is largely based on private specialists and a vast unregulated army of traditional medicine practitioners.

This pattern is typical of the whole region, and poorer people thus face the double whammy of unhealthy lifestyles plus inadequate access to preventive, diagnostic or curative care. So, despite the best efforts of policymakers to reduce health inequalities in many of the emerging tiger economies of the Asia Pacific, the headlong rush to the cities has meant that the cards are truly stacked against the less well-off.

As in the West, it will take a multisectoral mix of interventions to halt the rising tide of NCDs in these countries – health education, social marketing, regulation of the food and tobacco industries and, above all, health systems change. Marmot argues that efforts should be applied across the social gradient. But from the workers’ high-rises of China’s cities to the slums of Mumbai and the favelas of Rio, there’s also a clear need to focus on the world’s urban poor.

As the conference closes I think again of Dr Sun Yat-sen. I’m sure that, as a medical man, democrat and visionary, he would wish to see public health of the people, by the people, for the people, applied fairly to all the people, not just those who can afford to pay.

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The Faculty of Public Health today publishes our joint manifesto on public health, alongside the Royal Society of Public Health. 12 Steps to Better Public Health offers a dozen practical recommendations that, if adopted by the next government, will improve the UK’s health and well-being for the new decade.

The joint public health manifesto calls for:

  1. A minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol sold
  2. No junk food advertising in pre-watershed television
  3. Ban smoking in cars with children
  4. Chlamydia screening for university and college freshers
  5. 20 mph limit in built up areas
  6. A dedicated school nurse for every secondary school
  7. 25% increase in cycle lanes and cycle racks by 2015
  8. Compulsory and standardised front-of-pack labelling for all pre-packaged food
  9. Olympic legacy to include commitment to expand and upgrade school sports facilities and playing fields across the UK
  10. Introduce presumed consent for organ donation
  11. Free school meals for all children under 16
  12. Stop the use of transfats

The full manifesto is available to read here, and the front-page Guardian story, with an accompanying podcast from our President Alan Maryon-Davis, is available to read here.

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