Is loneliness a transport issue?
By Dawn Wylie, Senior Associate
Local Transport Today (LTT) reported that the Department for Transport (DfT) is proposing to introduce four questions on loneliness into the National Travel Survey (NTS) in England. This has led to some consternation. People have asked what the Government intends to do with this information and one gentleman in the pilot was reportedly saddened by the questions.
An explanatory statement in one of the experiments set out the importance of transport links to help people remain linked to their communities, but this also apparently led to confusion as to whether respondents should think about loneliness specifically related to transport in their responses or consider more general loneliness experiences.
What is not in question is the impact of loneliness. It is well established that loneliness is as damaging to our physical health as smoking or living with long term illness such as diabetes. It can increase inflammatory conditions such as asthma and autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis as well as leading to cardiovascular diseases, obesity and cancer, amongst other things. In terms of mental health, loneliness can lead to depression, alcohol abuse, sleep problems, personality disorders and Alzheimer’s disease.
Loneliness is increasing, and whether you blame changes in society, technology, or other changes in personal circumstances and lifestyles, loneliness is a ticking timebomb; the Royal College of General Practitioners refers to it as a Public Health epidemic, and something must be done.
In 2018, the Government appointed a Loneliness Minister and published a Loneliness Strategy (A connected society: A Strategy for tackling loneliness – laying the foundations for change, 2018). This recognises the problem, and, importantly the role that transport must play to connect people with others. The Strategy even goes as far as proposing that Ministers at the Department of Transport will have their portfolios extended to include loneliness.
This is not news to transport planners at PBA, now part of Stantec. We identified some time ago the important role that transport systems can play in alleviating loneliness and poor mental health. We have worked with local authorities to promote better integration between transport and public health departments and we researched and subsequently authored ‘A Transport Journey to a Healthier Life’ on behalf of the CIHT in 2016.
The fact that people are still querying why questions on loneliness are being included in the National Travel Survey and are seemingly unaware of the significant link between transport and mental health, is an important indicator that awareness still needs to be raised, and is in my view, the very reason why these questions need to be included. We look forward to seeing the outcomes.