On Friday, leaders at Transport North East (TNE) joined forces with academics at Newcastle University and the North East Office for Health Improvements and Disparities (OHID) to host an interactive transport and health workshop for delegates in the North East. The event was led by Dr Susan Kirk and Dr Andrew Kingston from Newcastle University and marked the start of a new cross-sector partnership focused on tackling health inequalities in the area through sustainable transport solutions.

The event took place at Newcastle Helix, a living research laboratory dedicated to helping people live better lives, and saw key players across the seven local authority areas in the North East come together in an effort to work towards shared regional objectives and create opportunities for better collaboration on projects.

Currently in 1 in 4 people in the North East are classed as physically inactive and air pollution causes an estimated 360 deaths each year in central Tyneside alone. The region also has a higher than national average of economically inactive people, with 28% of those on long-term sick. These issues are only exacerbated by the region’s overreliance on car travel as a means of getting around, and the rising rate of carbon emissions that come from daily petrol and diesel travel.

The event kicked off with an introduction from the Co-Director of Newcastle University’s Centre of Research Excellence (NUCoRE) in Mobility & Transport and Professor of Transport Futures at Newcastle University’s School of Engineering, Roberto Palacin, and a focused look at the many interfaces between transport and health, two sectors which are intrinsically linked. The spotlight was on the direct and indirect impact that transport has on health- including the physical and mental health benefits that come from active travel, as well as there being cleaner air to breath, quieter communities and better social connectedness when more people use sustainable transport, something which in turn boosts our healthy life expectancy. The need to consider the health needs of our diverse population in transport planning was also discussed, with a particular focus on what can be done to remove barriers to sustainable transport.

Phil Blythe, Professor of Intelligent Transport Systems at Newcastle University and former Chief Scientific Adviser for the Department for Transport said: “I’m delighted to see the active collaboration between Transport North East, national government and our NUCoRE on Transport and Mobility – this is a critical societal issue and I am delighted the North East is taking the lead to address this. Our NUCoRE was established to bring together the strength of the University through its many multi-disciplinary experts and research groups who can provide new perspectives on issues and work with our regional stakeholders to solve them. I hope this is the first of many collaborations that address tricky challenges associated with mobility and transport in the North East.”

Rachelle, Forsyth-Ward, Head of Transport Policy and Strategy Development at TNE presented the draft North East Active Travel Strategy at the event. The strategy is a key commitment of the North East Transport Plan, and something which TNE will seek approval from the North East Joint Transport Committee (NEJTC) to publish in 2023. It aims to encourage more walking, wheeling and cycling across the North East and for active travel to become the natural first choice for short everyday travel (combining it with public transport for longer journeys). The main target of the strategy is to increase short active travel journeys by 45% by 2035. Delegates were able to offer their knowledge and expertise on how sectors can work together to realise this ambitious target, which would have far-reaching health and wellbeing benefits for the regional population. If widely adopted the strategy could avoid in the region of 1,000 premature deaths, save around 80,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year, improve connectedness and cohesion of communities in our region and reduce social isolation on a major scale.

Tobyn Hughes, Managing Director at Transport North East said: “I’m proud that we have been able to facilitate an event like this alongside colleagues at Newcastle University and OHID (North East)- something which signals the joining of forces between public health, academia, transport and the third sector, in a way that goes beyond ideas and principle to deliver real impactful schemes and policy. It’s vitally important that regional leaders are all on the same page when it comes to tackling health and transport matters, as joined-up working will help us to realise the ambitions of our Transport Plan sooner, resulting in the North East becoming a healthier, happier and thriving place for people to live, work and visit.”

Tom Hall, Director of Public Health for South Tyneside, spoke of the poor health, poor wealth cycle, which shows how ill health in the North can lead to a substantial loss in the amount of days people are able to work and can cause eventual unemployment and economic inactivity for many, which only breeds further ill health. Ensuring a healthy standard of living through the development of sustainable places, communities and transport can interrupt this cycle and promote better health for regional people.

Academics from Newcastle University highlighted how we can bring research and practice together to deliver real tangible results for local people. Dr Yu-Tzu Wu looked at how we can collaborate by sharing data on our transport networks that will help their tracking of mobility data in older populations. Dr Andrew Kingston, Senior Lecturer at the university’s Faculty of Medical Sciences, whose particular area of research is in life-course epidemiology, ageing inequalities and how health outcomes unfold over time, explored opportunities for co-creation between sectors when it comes to future policy development.

At the afternoon session, delegates discussed the barriers and challenges, both real and perceived, that we need to overcome to boost active travel in the region. Issues such as the safety and security of active travel infrastructure and public transport, the accessibility of transport, its affordability, as well as the speed, reliability and convenience of journeys- all of which come with their own health implications for the user.

Also speaking at the event was Tom Jarvis, Senior Evidence and Analysis Officer from Transport from the North, who shared the staggering statistic that 3.3 million people across the North are at higher risk of transport related social exclusion than the rest of the UK. Claire Matthews, Health and Wellbeing Programme Lead (North East) at OHID facilitated roundtable discussions around the impact of transport on health and health on transport needs. Claire said: “There is a clear link between transport, health and wellbeing. Transport can play an integral role in addressing health and wellbeing disparities through a broad multi-stakeholder approach. I am delighted to be part of this collaboration in the North East to explore opportunities for joint working across sectors.”

Ali Stansfield, the School Streets Coordinator for Sustrans gave a presentation on the success of Sustrans’ School Streets initiative which saw major health and environmental benefits stemming from the creation of pedestrian and cycle only zones, by restricting motor vehicles during peak times in the school day- generally at drop off and pick up times. Emma Gibson followed with an insightful presentation on Gateshead Council’s development of Social Prescribing Pilots- a regional Active Travel funded scheme that is in development.

The workshop was the start of further partnership work, better information sharing and collaboration, as Transport North East plan to work more closely with Newcastle University and OHID (North East), as well as other likeminded organisations, to achieve shared objectives for transport and health going forward, in a way that enriches the North East.

You can find out more about the work TNE are doing to improve public health with transport at www.transportnortheast.gov.uk.