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Travel Mode and Physical Activity at Sydney University

Introduction

Workplace travel plans have the potential to promote physical activity through active travel options (walking, cycling, public transport and combinations of these modes of travel) and at the same time address organisational concerns such as environmental impact, traffic congestion and parking pressures. Active transport has many co-benefits, including positive impacts on climate change and sustainability. Workplace travel plans are behaviour change interventions designed to increase uptake of sustainable transport modes for commuting and business trips, often at the expense of car driving. They have been deployed extensively throughout Australia, the United States, Canada, the Netherlands and the UK, but not necessarily as part of routine workplace health promotion programs, nor at Universities. They typically involve a survey of travel behaviour to understand existing travel behaviours. A recent report on the cost-effectiveness of prevention programs highlighted that an optimal mix of cost-effective interventions for increasing physical activity at the population level could include travel planning.

There are many examples of travel planning projects demonstrating changes in travel modes, where broad coverage of the population has been targeted for minimal capital outlay demonstrating clear economic and financial returns, as well as large projected reductions in car use and carbon emissions. However, there is limited Australian evidence on whether workplace travel plans can improve employee health. There are few evaluations of workplace travel plans published in the peer reviewed literature, despite clear indications that active commuting is associated with a range of positive health outcomes. These benefits include increased cardiovascular health and weight loss/maintenance of healthy weight.

Universities, as a workplace focused on research and new ideas, might reasonably be expected to embrace the concept of travel planning, including provision for active commuters. A survey of active travel at The University of Western Australia found 21.5% of staff and 46.8% of students regularly used active modes (including public transport), and potentially an additional 30% of staff and students would switch to active modes under some circumstances. However, overall physical activity was not assessed in this study. A later study at the University of Western Australia found that, compared with private motor vehicle users, public transport users performed more daily steps, and the odds of achieving 10,000 steps/day was higher in public transport users compared with private motor vehicle users after adjusting for gender, age group and average daily minutes of self-reported leisure-time physical activity. However, the contribution of walking and cycling to overall physical activity was not considered in this study. Furthermore, a mid-western US college reported that individual active travel efficacy factors were most important for explaining active travel to campus, but small college towns are not comparable with large cosmopolitan cities in terms of transportation infrastructure and travel patterns.

In New South Wales (NSW), the most populous state in Australia, the prevalence of walking to work among employed respondents from 2005 to 2010 ranged between 5.1–7.3%, and 1.4–1.8% for cycling. Walking and cycling is more common in the inner city areas of Sydney compared with outer suburbs, with cycling in inner Sydney representing 2.2% of journeys to work, and walking representing 10.1% of journeys to work. In 2011 67.7% of all employees in the Greater Sydney Statistical Area drove to work, and 23.2% used public transport, although in the Sydney Central Business District 70% of employees used the train or bus, and 41.4% in Redfern (nearest train station to the University of Sydney) used the train or bus.

The University of Sydney is one of the oldest and largest Universities in Australia. It is currently developing a “Healthy University” program. As part of a focus on encouraging greater physical activity, this program has become linked with the way in which students and staff travel regularly to the University campuses as a way of integrating travel planning and health goals. This paper describes a University-wide survey of travel behaviour and physical activity. The survey outlined in this paper was designed to inform the development of a Green Travel Plan (reducing the Universities carbon footprint and increasing active travel) and to provide a physical activity baseline for the Healthy Sydney University program. It is the first Australian study to describe the links between physical activity outcomes and travel behaviour (including active travel) in a university context. A secondary research question is to examine and compare two definitions of active travel (with and without public transport use) in relation to achieving sufficient amount of physical activity. Such special consideration of public transport use in the context of active travel is important as public transport use has been found to contribute to overall physical activity.