Transport projects are never just about transport, they are about the outcomes that improvements in connectivity and accessibility can achieve; reducing unemployment, increasing skills and education, attracting inward investment to towns and cities, and most importantly improved health and wellbeing for the people impacted by transport schemes.
The UK population is approximately 20% less active than in the 1960s. Active travel – walking, wheeling and cycling for everyday journeys – is considered a key lever to get the population moving and reverse these trends. But what if active travel could be prescribed to improve mental and physical health and reduce disparities across the country?
In 2022, the Department for Transport (DfT) initiated an Active Travel Social Prescribing Pilot. We supported Leeds City Council alongside consultancy firm Magpie to submit a bid for funding for the first pilot and were one of 11 successful local authorities nationally.
We are leading on two workstreams of the pilot: developing an active travel masterplan with local stakeholders and co-creating urban trails with communities.
What is social prescribing?
Social prescribing – sometimes referred to as community referral – is a means of enabling GPs, nurses and other health and care professionals to refer people to a range of local, non-clinical services. Active travel social prescribing – focuses on referrals to individual or group walking, wheeling or cycling.
A whole systems approach to health improvement
The pilot is taking place in the Burmantofts, Harehills and Richmond Hill Primary Care Network (PCN) area, an area home to over 70,000 people on the eastern edge of Leeds City Centre. As one of the densest parts of the city in terms of population, interventions to improve the active travel environment and change behaviours to empower groups and individuals have the potential to make a large impact.
Recognising that people’s health and wellbeing are determined mostly by a range of social, economic and environmental factors, social prescribing seeks to address people’s needs in a holistic way and supports individuals and households to take greater control of their own health. The focus of the localised social prescribing approach is to bring the physical activity opportunities to residents’ front doors. We aim to change the context within the area to enable people to create new habits and behaviours. Our work on the pilot seeks to identify infrastructure priorities to improve environments, and connect to the expanding active travel network and complementary behavioural change strategies to encourage an increased uptake of walking, wheeling and cycling in the PCN area.
An active travel masterplan
The Masterplan - with input from a range of stakeholders – will support changes to the urban realm and transport infrastructure in Burmantofts, Harehills and Richmond Hill. It will aim to encourage walking, wheeling and cycling for everyday local trips, as well as trips to Leeds City Centre to connect in with the rapidly evolving active travel infrastructure around the city’s business and retail district. The masterplan will build in recommendations for lighting, seating and wayfinding amongst other complementary measures to make active travel more inclusive, accessible and attractive.
Co-creating urban trails
Urban trails are signed routes (and often mapped on apps) within an urban area with an additional layer of interest or playfulness, including monuments to pass, QR codes to scan and themed information boards to read.
Behavioural-change organisation Magpie are also involved in the pilot, primarily supporting co-design in a complex landscape of a multitude of languages, ages and needs of the local communities. All recommendations for active travel infrastructure improvements, urban trails, group activities and social prescribing need to be mindful of the diverse communities within the study area – over 70 languages are spoken locally.
Shaping an active community
Another focus of the pilot is taking a family-based approach. We are involving families in urban trails around parts of the city to improve the walking environment. These are supported by local walking initiatives and ‘learn-to-ride’ sessions and group activities that have been extended to adults as well as children, alongside cycle hubs focused around schools. Within the relatively small study area, there are 17 schools scattered across the Primary Care Network (PCN), which will also have benefits for parents, who are a priority group for the pilot.
We are also seeking to build the evidence base for what works, and what can be adapted elsewhere. There have been some smaller-scale social prescribing projects across the country which have hinted at positive outcomes and return on investment but sustained long-term pilots with extensive monitoring and evaluation will be able to strengthen the case for holistic, community-based interventions.