Get on your bike!

Dr Chance Pistoll, Professor Steven Cummins

In an age when we are all being encouraged to take more exercise and drive less, what can Understanding Society data tell us about walking, cycling or taking public transport to work?

Young people (aged 16-34) are more likely to take up commuting by foot, bike or public transport than middle-aged or older people – but they’re also more likely to stop.

That was one of the findings in our paper, Exploring changes in active travel uptake and cessation across the lifespan: Longitudinal evidence from the UK Household Longitudinal Survey, looking at patterns in people’s use of public transport and other forms of ‘active travel’ as we get older.

So, why might that be? And what can governments and other agencies do to encourage people – of all ages – to take up active travel (and stick with it)?

What the data shows

We looked at data from Waves 2 and 6 of Understanding Society (2010-12 and 2014-16), involving over 11,500 participants – over 5,000 men aged 20-82 and over 6,400 women aged 19-87. (As an aside, we excluded people who were unemployed, including those who had retired, so – although most of the over 55s were under 70 – some respondents were clearly working much later in life than we might expect.)

We found that:

  • Walking and cycling was more common among younger men – 19.5% of 16-24-year-olds, compared to 10.1% of over-55s.
  • There was less drop-off in walking and cycling among women – 16.9% for 16-24-year-olds, and 16.2% of over-55s.

When we looked specifically at starting to cycle or walk to work, we found that:

  • The youngest group of men (7.9%) and women (9.3%) were most likely to take up one of these.
  • These numbers dropped to 2.5% and 3.6% for over-55s.

When it came to starting to use public transport:

  • This was also commonest among the youngest group of men (10.5%) and women (9.6%).
  • These figures dropped to 3.4% and 3.5% for over-55s.

However, younger people were also much more likely to give up walking or cycling.

  • 17.8% of the youngest male age group and 15.9% of the same group of women gave up.
  • This compares to 3.9% of over-55-year-old men and 4.8% of the same group of women.

Younger people were also more likely to give up using public transport:

  • 9.4% of men in the youngest age group and 12.2% of women gave up this mode of travelling to work.
  • This compares to 2.8% and 2.6% among the over-55s.

It seems that the way we commute becomes more stable with age – or, to put it another way, the older we get, the more likely we are to stick with the methods of travel we’re used to.

What accounts for the differences?

There may be many reasons for this. We were building on research (also using Understanding Society) by Ben Clark, Kiron Chatterjee and Steve Melia in 2016, which suggests that major life events such as moving house and/or job (and thus changing the distance people commute) will affect how people choose to travel. However, we controlled for changing commute distance in our study and the relationships still held. So, what is going on here? 

We suggest that younger people – at a time of experimentation and exploration – may be more likely to try different forms of transport, and may choose to cycle, for example, if there is infrastructure in place (such as cycle lanes).

It may also be that older people are more likely to have health conditions which prevent them taking up active travel – and that those who have habitually walked, cycled or used public transport may have better physical health as a result, and therefore not feel the need to give up active travel.

What can governments do?

We also considered what this could mean for public policy. Countries including the UK, Australia and New Zealand have national strategies to promote active commuting, and we believe there are critical age periods when governments can intervene to encourage active travel. If these governments and others were to target tax relief or health promotion programmes at specific age groups, it might encourage them to take up active travel – or to persist with it – and it could be a more efficient way to use limited resources.

We live in an aspirational society, in which cars can be status symbols, so perhaps people will always need encouragement to switch to ‘active travel’. By understanding more about how we live by analysing representative, longitudinal data, we can learn more about how to achieve that.


Dr Chance Pistoll

Chance Pistoll is a General Practitioner and Lecturer in Primary Health at the University of Melbourne Medical School

Professor Steven Cummins

Steven Cummins is Professor of Population Health at the Department of Public Health, Environments & Society, at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine