Urban Mobility and Health

Mobility and health are profoundly interlinked.  Apart from the well-studied effects of international and rural-urban migration on health,  more mundane experiences of local mobility are increasingly recognised as both affecting wellbeing, and shaping what we understand wellbeing to be.

Social scientists have long been interested in ‘living well’ in the city, and members of SUPHI are bringing insights from sociology, anthropology, geography and data science to bear on the implications of mobility for healthy public policy, including work on healthy cities of the south, collaborations with partners overseas, and research on the global city on our doorstep: London.

Accessing the determinants of health – employment, goods and services  – requires access to transport: a major challenge for those in informal settlements at the edges of many global cities.  Even in high income cities, the right to mobility is not guaranteed.  Older bodies, disabled bodies, and younger bodies are more difficult to align with many urban transport systems, which often require alert, agile and assertive users.

Urban transport policy directly affects  wellbeing.  It can impact on how cities shape opportunities for active travel, and who does it: why cycling in London is still disproportionately an activity for affluent, white men; or what influences children’s walking in London for instance.

It also has a range of indirect effects, with complex outcomes arising from networks and flows of technologies, climates, environments, human and other bodies and much else.  We therefore also use ‘big data’ to look at urban flows, hubs and centres, and undertake critical social science of issues such as how knowledge around pollution is generated, or the implications of treating city environments as  ‘instrumental’ for activity.

Transformations in everyday mobility – such as the increasing use of digital technologies to help us navigate space, and track our own physical movements, or the decreasing reliance on automobility for young people  – have effects on health and wellbeing, and potentially on health equity.  They are also generating new ways of thinking about what is needed to be healthy in the city as mobile citizens.

Social science research has evaluated and informed many public health interventions around mobility.  Work on mobility as social practice, for example, has fed into campaigns in London to ‘de-lycrify’ cycling to make it looks less ‘extraordinary’ and dangerous.  An evaluation of free bus travel for young people in London showed the significant public health benefits derived from a socially- inclusive policy to reduce transport exclusion.