With FOURTEEN gold medals and a string of world records to her name, Dame Sarah Storey is the UK’s most successful female Paralympian of all time.
And as the public face of ambitions to boost health by reducing car use and promoting “active travel”, the champion swimmer and cyclist is keen to use her sporting credentials to make a difference.
Dame Sarah was this week announced as the active travel commissioner for the Sheffield City Region, a role which will see her promote walking and cycling and encourage people to avoid unnecessary car journeys.
She said: “It’s about giving people an alternative means of transport.
“At the moment the default transport appears to be, even for the very shortest journeys, by car.”
The active travel project, part of Mayor Dan Jarvis’s transport vision for the region, aims to boost public health while improving transport links and tackling air pollution and road congestion.
Dame Sarah said: “When you look around you in a traffic jam in the morning, you see that many vehicles have got just one person in them and we are all responsible for contributing to that congestion.
“We need to design a network of segregated bike paths, safe walkways, crossing points and junctions that are easily navigated by bike and by foot, and create places where the pedestrian and the cyclist have priority so they’re more likely to use those facilities.”
While people’s mindset may need to change when it comes to their choices about how they travel, Dame Sarah is keen not to appear to be telling them what to do.
She said: “We need to enable people to understand why this is important and ask them about the sort of place they want their children and their grandchildren to grow up in.
“We’re not telling people they don’t need a car or that they shouldn’t be owning a car.
“We’re not dictating by any stretch. We’re just trying to minimise the impact that so many hundreds of thousands of short car journeys make on our ability to move around freely.
“And quite often the shortest journeys are as quick on foot or by bike as they are in a vehicle.”
Along with changes to public attitudes to travel, a different approach is needed at government policy level after years of infrastructure projects which favour car travel, Dame Sarah said.
“We obviously haven’t invested in cycling and walking infrastructure sufficiently. We’ve redesigned roads, built bypasses to roads, and we’ve built bypasses to the bypasses and we haven’t included any infrastructure within those new roads that is suitable.
“The world over, the car has become king and with that, we have become less and less healthy as a population. We need to shift the balance back the other way.”
With rising rates of obesity and diabetes around the country, making short journeys by bike or on foot could bring significant public health benefits without people consciously trying to exercise more.
Dame Sarah said: “This will have a huge impact. If everybody could walk to work or walk or cycle part of the journey and be active in their travelling around, then you don’t need to think about whether you have an active lifestyle and that has a knock-on effect to your body weight, your body composition and your mental health, because physical health and mental health are hugely linked.”
Business would reap the benefits of more healthy and productive staff who have not endured a morning traffic jam, Dame Sarah added.
She said: “Businesses will find that their active workforce will be more productive. There will be less sick days. People will arrive at the office ready to work because they’ve had a less stressful journey in. They will have already done the checking of their social media accounts and all the other things that perhaps delay the start of a working day. And ultimately people will just get on and work. You don’t need to be arriving at working needing to let off steam for the first 45 minutes.”
When it comes to pollution, the school run is a classic example of where unnecessary car journeys could be reduced.
Dame Sarah said: “There’s been some studies looking at the air quality around primary schools and those are quite frightening. We need to look at how we can minimise and remove that so we are looking after our children. We have a huge role to play.”
Is is also hoped more opportunities to walk and cycle will benefit people with disabilities and those who need to exercise as part of their rehabilitation from health conditions.
Dame Sarah said: “When we’re talking about cycling, we’re not just talking about two wheels. We’re talking about three wheels, cargo bikes, we’re talking about four wheels. We’re talking about mobility aids. Many people with disabilities and impairments use a bike because it means they don’t have to walk or use their crutches.
“I’m very excited about the role. The opportunity to enable people to have a positive impact on the way they live their lives is just a huge privilege. We’re not a nanny state. We’re not telling you what to do. What we’re doing is enabling people to make an informed choice.”