It is 5 years since free travel on local buses was given to all over 60 year olds in the UK. Research carried out by Imperial College London has found that this has had a positive effect on the health of the older generation. Free bus passes have resulted in people walking more.
On 1st April 2006 everyone in the UK over the age of 60 became entitled to travel for free on local buses. This change in policy has resulted in many people who never previously used public transport catching buses into town. The main driving factor for many people is that they save money on petrol and car parking fees. The health benefit of catching the bus never occurred to anybody until now.
Dr Elizabeth Webb from the Department of Primary Care and Public Health at Imperial College London and the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies in Society and Health conducted the analysis with the assistance of Dr. Gopalakrishnan Netuveli and Dr. Christopher Millett.
They used data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing for the years 2004, 2006 and 2008. The data included public transport usage, body mass index, waist circumference and obesity.
The study found that since 2006 more people started using public transport, proof that the scheme was working and getting people out of their cars and onto the buses. They also found that those who used public transport were less likely to become obese – as public transport usage increase obesity reduced.
The research was conclusive – by introducing free bus travel for older people in England the government has helped to reduce the impact of obesity.
How Does Bus Travel Reduce Obesity?
Quite simply, by encourage people to use public transport you also encourage people to walk more. The over-reliance on private cars means that people hardly walk these days. Car parks are located close to town centres and shops. As much as people get upset about the lack of parking, they always find a spot within a few minutes walk of their destination.
For most people catching a bus involves a relatively long walk to the nearest bus stop and then more walking once they reach their destination. If you couple this with the fact that people are generally uses the bus to go shopping and so carrying bags back home, this means that a lot of extra energy is burned.
One of the main reasons for the obesity crisis is due to the fact that we now live in an “obesogenic environment“. There is not really any single cause for obesity, instead there is a combination of factors which when all working together greatly increase the likilihood of someone becoming obese.
Although how much we eat is a key factor, a more sedentary lifestyle is also a big problem. 50 years ago people actually consumed more or less the same amount of calories every day as they do today. However, fewer people owned cars. Everyday people walked several miles just to get to and from their place of work or the shops. Although the rise in fast food has also contributed massively to the obesity crisis, alone it is not the sole cause of weight gain.
In short, humans are not lazy. If you take the car everywhere then the chances are that you will become overweight and maybe obese.
Free Public Transport for All?
If the government wants to make a real change to the way we live our lives one option is to make public transport free for all. Encouraging children and young adults to use buses will result in many people becoming more active in day to day life. This could go a long way to cutting cases of obesity which will in turn reduce the number of people developing diabetes, which is fast becoming the biggest cost to the NHS.
However, as were are currently seeing more and more cuts to public spending and a reduction in services in local transport, this would appear to be just a pipe dream.
“Free bus passes, use of public transport and obesity among older people in England” by Elizabeth Webb, Gopalakrishnan Netuveli, Christopher Millett. J Epidemiol Community Health doi:10.1136/jech.2011.133165. Abstract: http://jech.bmj.com/content/early/2011/08/31/jech.2011.133165.short?rss=1