People of Antwerp explore link between transport and health


Large numbers of Antwerp residents are taking part in a European research project that examines the link between mobility and health

Europe on the move

Antwerp is regularly mentioned in the media as being one of most traffic-congested cities in Europe, with serious air pollution one of the results. Flemish researchers are now examining the link between the mobility of Antwerp’s residents and their health, as part of a study being carried out simultaneously in seven European cities.

Last month, the seven teams taking part in Pasta – Physical Activity through Sustainable Transport Approaches – launched an online survey, which will investigate residents’ transport choices and the link with their physical activity and health for a period of two years.

The Flemish team, which will be studying the situation in Antwerp, consists of four researchers who are connected to the Flemish Institute for Technological Research (Vito) and Hasselt University (UHasselt). Vito is also contributing to the financing of the study, which is for the most part subsidised by the European Commission.

“Our starting point was the conviction that the most efficient way to improve public health is not just to support progress in medical technology but also to encourage citizens to move more in their daily lives,” explains Vito researcher Luc Int Panis, who is co-ordinating the project in Antwerp. “Lack of movement is the major cause of the increasing prevalence of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.”

In the survey, volunteer participants answer questions about issues such as the amount of time they spend on a bike and the most efficient way of getting to their destination in Antwerp. One question deals with the use of bicycle highways – cycle paths without junctions that allow cyclists to cover long distances quickly. Antwerp province recently created this infrastructure and wants to find out to what extent residents appreciate the initiative.

Improving quality of life

“One of the problems in cities is that it is difficult to estimate what effect such expensive infrastructure works have on residents’ quality of life,” says Int Panis. The Pasta project will provide insights through the expansion of the World Health Organisation’s European Health Economic Assessment Tool (Heat), which is one of the partners of the project.

The response shows how many people are concerned with mobility and air pollution

- Luc Int Panis

Heat is a way of conducting an economic assessment of the health benefits of walking or cycling, by estimating the value of reduced mortality that results from specified amounts of such exercise. It’s especially useful in the process of planning new cycling or walking infrastructure. “But the data for the moment is mostly limited to the conditions in Scandinavia, which are of course not representative of the whole of Europe,” says Int Panis.

The Pasta project will, therefore, provide new data assembled in seven European cities: Antwerp, Barcelona, London, Örebro, Rome, Vienna and Zurich. With more than 1,000 participants after just one week, the launch of the project in Antwerp has been the most successful.

“The great support of the province and the city in spreading the message was a major reason,” says Int Panis. “But the response also shows how many people are concerned with mobility issues and air pollution in Antwerp.”

The survey is available in several languages, and 10% of the Antwerp participants filled in the English-language version. “This means the research is a good opportunity to examine the specific opinions and behaviour of the expat community,” says Int Panis.

What works where

The survey will be conducted in all seven cities over two years, with short follow-up questions to analyse the possible differences between the seasons. Simultaneously, Antwerp, Barcelona and London will carry out practical experiments with a group of volunteers for a week, during which time the volunteers will carry instruments such as a GPS, heart rate monitor, accelerometer and air pollution monitor.

“We want to check the information that we gather during the survey, since people are often less physically active than they think,” explains Int Panis. One of the purposes is also to measure the effect of cycling in places with lots of congestion, which results in short peaks of inhaling polluted air.

Comparing the European results should help researchers understand why certain infrastructure measures work in certain cities but not in others. The project should lead to concrete advice for policymakers, which will be distributed through international partners like the World Health Organisation and Polis – a network of European cities and regions working together to develop innovative technologies and policies for local transport.

Photo courtesy Stad Antwerpen