Cars should not be given priority when roads are built or upgraded, according to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).
The UK’s health watchdog says pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users should be the prime consideration for planners, in draft guidelines designed to increase the amount of physical activity in people’s day-to-day lives.
The guidelines say planners should also aim to provide pavements with bumps and grooves as well as anti-glare surfaces, to help those with visual impairments.
Professor Gillian Leng, NICE deputy chief executive, said: “Getting people to be more physically active by increasing the amount they walk or cycle has the potential to benefit both the individual and the health system.
“As a society we are facing a looming Type 2 diabetes crisis, which is in part caused by people not exercising enough. We need more people to change their lifestyle and to take more exercise.
“People can feel less safe when they walk or cycle compared with when they drive. We’ve got to change this.
“So asking planners to prioritise pedestrians, cyclists and those who use public transport when roads are built or upgraded can ensure they are safe, attractive and designed to encourage people to get out from behind their wheel.”
NICE estimates that obesity affects one in four adults and one in five children aged 10 to 11 years – and that physical inactivity is responsible for one in six deaths and believed to cost the UK £7.4bn each year, including £900m to the NHS.
Joe Irvin, chief executive of the walking charity Living Streets, said: “For decades our towns and cities have been built to prioritise motor vehicles, resulting in unhealthy air, congested roads and a decline in people walking.
“The better planning that NICE is suggesting is absolutely necessary. The most vulnerable – children and older people – are currently suffering the most from bad air, unhealthy lifestyles and social isolation.
“It’s time that towns and cities were built for everyone – first and foremost for those on foot. Placing key services like schools, GP surgeries and bus stops within walking distance is vital.
“More people getting out and walking everyday journeys, such as to work or school, will make us a healthier country.”
A DfT spokeswoman said: “DfT guidance is crystal clear that street design should explicitly consider pedestrians and cyclists first.
“Our Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy safety review, published last year, set out further measures to improve safety, including a review of the Highway Code.”
Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation, said: “New road building is rare and where it does take place it is usually associated with housing estates.
“It’s all very well making provision for walking and cycling in these developments but if the shops, schools and doctors’ surgeries that people need to get to are still miles away, then for many the car will remain the most practical method of travel.”
Nicholas Lyes, RAC head of roads policy, said: “While we welcome changes to road design that encourage more people to walk and cycle in towns and cities, the reality is that the use of many roads is inevitably shared between different types of motorised traffic, cyclists and pedestrians – with priority often given to motorised transport in order to keep large numbers of people moving.
“Using a car is the only feasible option for many people, especially if they are commuting or travelling to locations that aren’t served by public transport, or where walking or cycling are not practical alternatives.
“NICE has previously acknowledged the importance of smooth traffic flow in order to reduce air pollution, so we would hope that this new guidance does not result in local planners building or changing roads which results in more congestion and pollution, rather than less.”
A public consultation on the draft guidelines from NICE will run until 1 February.