How the Lack of Walking and Cycling Infrastructure Fuels Obesity in the UK

In recent years, the United Kingdom has witnessed a troubling surge in obesity rates, both among adults and children. A significant contributor to this epidemic is the glaring deficiency in walking and cycling infrastructure across the country.

The prevailing car-centric culture, coupled with inadequate active travel opportunities, has set the stage for an alarming rise in obesity levels. Throughout this article as a concerned parent, I aim to explore the impact of the lack of walking and cycling infrastructure on obesity in the UK, shedding light on the consequences for both adults and children and advocating for the urgent need to prioritise safe active travel options.

According to data, there were approximately 33 million registered cars on the road throughout 2022. A figure which was just 21 million in 1994. Road use and a more sedentary lifestyle have coincided with a significant increase in obesity levels for the same data period. In the same period, our access to healthcare and improvements in treatment have increased significantly yet as a nation we are becoming fatter and sicker. How we travel day to day is a huge component of this. 

The Growing Weight of the Nation

Obesity has become a pressing public health concern in the UK, with rates soaring to unprecedented levels. According to recent statistics, nearly 28% of adults in the UK are classified as obese, and approximately 23% of children aged 10 to 11 are grappling with obesity. The implications of these numbers extend beyond mere health statistics, encompassing a broad range of economic, social, and psychological consequences.

Car-Centric Culture:

One of the primary culprits behind the rising obesity epidemic in the UK is the deeply ingrained car-centric culture. Urban planning and infrastructure development have long favoured motorised transportation over walking and cycling. The ubiquitous presence of roads and highways, coupled with limited provisions for pedestrians and cyclists, has created an environment that discourages active travel.

Furthermore, retail and residential planning is created in a car-centric nature (think retail parks and soulless housing developments) with no local amenities. Residents are then forced to utilise their car as the primary mode of transport which is then ingrained within their day-to-day mindset. With so many barriers to walking or cycling all travel is made via car; even those journeys which could be completed on foot.

The Impact on Adults:

For adults, the lack of walking and cycling infrastructure translates into sedentary lifestyles. The convenience of hopping into a car for short trips, even those that could easily be covered on foot or by bicycle, has become the norm. This sedentary behaviour is a significant contributor to weight gain and obesity. Studies have consistently shown that individuals who engage in regular physical activity, such as walking or cycling, are less likely to be overweight or obese.

The car-centric nature of urban planning has also led to environments where walking or cycling can be perceived as unsafe or impractical. Limited pavements, poorly maintained cycling lanes, and inadequate street lighting all contribute to the reluctance of adults to choose active travel options. As a result, many opt for the perceived safety and convenience of driving, contributing to a vicious cycle of inactivity and weight gain.

A clear example of this can be seen in new developments across the UK. Commonly these are built without local amenities such as shops, schools and libraries and the surrounding infrastructure favours a car journey vs one one foot or bike. An example of this would be Northstowe in Cambridgeshire which some 6 years after development still has no local amenities other than schools. This drives (literally) those who live in such a community to use their car as a means of transport.

The Health Survey for England 2021 estimates that 25.9% of adults in England are obese and a further 37.9% are overweight but not obese. Over 63% of the popular are therefore overweight. This trend continues to increase despite advancements in technology and health. 

The Impact on Children:

Children are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of the lack of walking and cycling infrastructure. The decline in physical activity levels among youngsters is alarming, and the associated health risks are daunting. Childhood obesity not only poses immediate health threats but also increases the likelihood of obesity in adulthood, with its myriad health complications.

Schools play a crucial role in shaping children’s habits, and yet, the surrounding infrastructure often fails to support active modes of transportation. Many children are driven to school, contributing to a lack of daily physical activity. The absence of safe routes for walking or cycling hinders the development of healthy habits and exacerbates the obesity crisis among the younger population.

Ironically many children are taught cycling proficiency in school yet this feels like a token gesture. Often parents choose to drive their children to school for efficiency purposes but often don’t take into consideration traffic as well as overall health gains from walking/cycling.

With better infrastructure more freedom and autonomy could be given to children to make their own way to school; particularly for those in secondary school. 

10.1% of reception-age children (age 4-5) were obese in 2021/22, with a further 12.1% being overweight. At ages 10-11 (year 6), 23.4% were obese and 14.3% overweight. This data is gathered as part of the National Child Measurement Programme and published by NHS Digital.

Productivity Decline:

Areas in England with the most overweight and obese people also have the lowest rates of productivity, according to research showing “obesity is an economic as well as a health timebomb”. Source

With the UK also facing a productivity crisis all data points to Obesity and and decline in productivity. This coupled with more sedentary office-based work we have a less mobile, active workforce.
‘Obesity is estimated to cost the NHS £6bn a year and the UK economy £27bn a year through lost productivity. The disease can leave people unable to work, for example by causing sore joints.’

With childhood obesity at all-time highs, you would assume this productivity decline would continue. Every micro decision we make on a day-by-day basis is a factor in the long-term health of the nation. 

Year-on-Year Increase: A Troubling Trend:

The data on obesity rates in the UK reveals a disturbing year-on-year increase. The combination of a sedentary lifestyle and poor dietary choices has fueled this upward trajectory. However, the role of the built environment in shaping behaviour and health outcomes cannot be overstated. The lack of walking and cycling infrastructure is a significant factor contributing to the relentless rise in obesity levels.

When cars are given priority and encouraged as a mode of day-to-day transport this trend will increase. Coupled with the rise in knowledge workers. (Over 25% of all jobs are classified as ‘professional jobs’) it’s a cocktail of inactivity. 

The Role of Active Travel:

Investment in Infrastructure:

Governments at all levels must prioritise investment in walking and cycling infrastructure. This includes expanding and maintaining pavements, creating dedicated cycling lanes, and implementing traffic-calming measures to enhance pedestrian safety.

Ironically despite the government’s own research suggesting active travel has the best ROI of all travel types the budget has been cut substantially to just £350m. When you consider the government spending billions on roads the cuts to a mode of transport with a higher ROI is disappointing.

Promoting Active Travel:

Public awareness campaigns can play a pivotal role in encouraging active travel. These campaigns should emphasise the health benefits of walking and cycling, dispelling misconceptions and promoting these activities as viable and enjoyable alternatives to car travel. Some studies even suggest that healthy workers are almost three times more productive than their unhealthy colleagues, who take up to nine times the amount of sick leave each year.

Not only is it a win for the government (who are deeply worried about productivity throughout the UK) it’s also a win for businesses who are looking for new hires.

Incentives for Businesses:

Encouraging businesses to provide facilities for active commuting, such as bike storage and showers, can foster a culture that values and supports walking and cycling. Incentives for employees who choose active travel options can further motivate individuals to adopt healthier commuting habits and as such create more rounded, happier employees.

Education Initiatives:

Integrating education on the benefits of physical activity and the risks of sedentary behaviour into school curricula can instil healthy habits from a young age. Children who understand the importance of active travel are more likely to carry these habits into adulthood.

Community Engagement:

Involving communities in the planning and design of public spaces is crucial. Local input can ensure that walking and cycling infrastructure meets the specific needs and concerns of each community, fostering a sense of ownership and pride in the new developments.

What you can do as parents?

Despite all of the above, we as parents hold the key to curbing obesity in children. Our choices and way of life are influences. Although the below guidance will not be possible for all I believe every parent can implement some of it within the day-to-day life of their children.

Find a job closer to home:

As a service-based country, a high number of jobs are now either office-based or work-from-home. Granted not all and in some professions, this is not possible but we must focus on those which are.

Localised jobs or work-from-home opportunities remove commuting cars from the road and enable those within professions where they need to drive for work to have a more enjoyable experience. Think HGV drivers, health services and so forth. With a reduction in cars from parents commuting to office-based roles which could be performed on a hybrid basis there will be less congestion, cleaner streets and a safer walking/cycling environment.

Choose outdoor activities on a weekend:

The UK has an abundance of outdoor opportunities for families to enjoy. We are members of the National Trust which is equal to a tank of petrol for a larger SUV. 

Furthermore, every town and city has local parks, playing fields and recreational opportunities which are inexpensive or free of charge.

We tend to spend the majority of our weekend outdoors and it’s what we enjoy the most. For example: This past weekend we again visited Leeds Urban Bike Park. It’s completely free of charge and full of traffic-free circuits for the kids (and adults) to enjoy. 

Instilling these types of activities within your children from a young age means it’s the type of thing they enjoy. Not only this but it’s brilliant exercise too.

Choose walkable/cyclable catchment schools:

This is not always possible within rural areas but there has been a significant decline in children walking to school. It’s estimated over the past decade the number of primary school children who walk to school has gone from 70% to less than 50%.

The irony of this is that the biggest barrier to this is traffic as the reason parents choose to drive to school.

Another issue which we have encountered is people choosing a school outside their catchment area or a school further away from their home. Growing up we just went to the local school but with more choice & data people are choosing schools further away and as such driving. People make informed decisions with the data they have however starting your day by walking/cycling to school can have a huge impact on both the parent’s and child’s weight levels and as a bi product their overall mental health.

Educate on health and nutrition:

The Western diet has changed remarkably over the past 10-20 years. Highly processed junk food has become the norm in supermarkets and everywhere you go it’s difficult to avoid unhealthy options (Check the cafe at most council sports centres). 
The food industry and convenience is out of control but as a parent, you can control the narrative with your own children. Highlight the downsides to junk food and a poor diet. Push the positives from eating foods with very few ingredients (less processed) and how these foods replenish the body. It’s really challenging as a parent but you can make proactive steps in how you frame the conversation on healthy eating and habits.

Set an example:

As with everything in life you need to lead from the front and this is no different when educating children on obesity. Exercise frequently, practice what you preach, eat well and build those positive habits within your day-to-day life.

Children are sponges and look to parents as role models. Life is one big balancing act and health/fitness needs to be one of the primary goals for everyone. 


The obesity epidemic in the UK is a multifaceted issue that demands a comprehensive and collaborative approach. Addressing the lack of walking and cycling infrastructure is a critical step toward creating environments that promote physical activity and combat the rising tide of obesity. By challenging the prevailing car-centric culture and investing in active travel opportunities, the UK can pave the way for a healthier and more sustainable future, where obesity is no longer an escalating crisis but a declining concern.


Photo by Alia on Unsplash

Last Updated on February 7, 2024 by Ryan

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