How transport drives the game: linking sports, accessibility, and community

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With the Euros kicking off, the T20 Cricket World Cup in full swing, and me nursing my wounds from Bath Rugby’s loss in the Premiership Final, I figured it is the perfect time to dive into how transport fuels our sports obsession.

Transport and sport share deep connections beyond mere coincidence or spelling similarities. Take football, for example – not that I often dwell on it as a devoted Sheffield Wednesday fan. Once a regional pursuit, football’s transformation into today’s lucrative industry owes much to transport infrastructure, especially the railway networks of the late 19th century. These developments helped forge a path from local level to national leagues, ultimately giving birth to the Football League.

The relationship between transport and sport is multifaceted, influencing accessibility, economic dynamics, environmental sustainability, social cohesion, health, and operational logistics. This article tries to draw out some of these key links.

The obvious starting point is the actual and perceived lack of access to sport, whether that is participating or spectating. An efficient transport network enables athletes, fans, and support staff to access sports facilities and events. Public transport, roads, and parking facilities are essential for accessing regular training sessions, matches and competitions.

This is not a new thing. The Social Exclusion Unit’s Making the Connections: Final Report on Transport and Social Exclusion report in 2003 outlined that “18% of people without a car find seeing friends and family difficult because of transport problems, compared with 8% for car owners. People without cars are also twice as likely to find it difficult getting to leisure centres” – and I firmly believe that this trend has only intensified over the past two decades.

This is only exacerbated for those with disabilities. A survey, commissioned by the disabled-led charity Level Playing Field (LPF) in 2023 found that 20% of disabled sports fans reported inaccessible public transport as a barrier to attending live sports events, up from 17.5% previous year and 16% in 2021. The survey, which polled 1,800 disabled fans, also revealed an increase in ‘disability abuse’ at events, with 7% citing it as a barrier, up from 5.5% in 2021 and 6.5% in the previous year. Additionally, the ‘lack of support from club staff’ was reported by 11% of respondents, rising from 7% in 2021 and 10% in 2022.

Simple improvements to the transport network and infrastructure can increase participation in sports by making it easier for people from different regions, including rural and underserved areas, to access sports facilities and events. Partnership working here is key to increase inclusivity as demonstrated in North Essex, where an initiative was brought forward in 2022 to provide free community bus transport to Leisure World Colchester and Clacton Leisure Centre, enabling residents who face travel challenges to participate in inclusive sporting activities. This service, a collaboration between Sport For Confidence, Community 360, and Community Voluntary Services Tendring (CVST), picks up participants from their homes and delivers them directly to the leisure centres.

Sophie Garratt, an Occupational Therapist at Sport For Confidence, highlighted the transformative impact of this service in addressing inequalities by removing travel barriers. Previously, many potential participants were unable to attend due to financial constraints, mobility issues, or the inability to travel independently. The free transport service has alleviated these obstacles, reducing social isolation and promoting physical activity.

The availability of transport can result in the development of sporting opportunities.  In recent years, the rise of budget airlines has facilitated the development of European football leagues. Fans can now travel abroad more easily and cheaply to watch their teams play. Transport has undoubtedly fuelled the development of professional sport, and travelling sports fans have contributed significantly to the profits of train companies and airlines. Research from VisitBritain showed that 900,000 football tourists visited Britain last year, providing a significant boost to the UK tourist industry. These fans spent £706 million in total, averaging around £785 per visitor. Getting to a game was the main reason for their trip, according to 40% of foreign football fans.

Sporting events, especially major ones like the Olympics and World Cups, act as catalysts for investment. Host cities and countries often create improved sporting venues as a legacy. They also typically invest in infrastructure and transportation to accommodate an influx of tourists. For instance, significant transport projects were developed around London in preparation for the 2012 Olympics. This has left a lasting legacy for London residents, particularly benefiting East London with enhanced public transport options.

London invested over £6.5 billion to upgrade its transport system for the Olympics, resulting in expanded train services, new lines, improved accessibility at stations, and a fully accessible bus network. The trains purchased for the Olympics will still be in use in 2042, and some lines extended for the 2012 Games will continue operating in 2112. The Olympic Javelin trains, initially used to transport spectators from central London to the Olympic Park in just seven minutes, were integrated into Southeastern’s high-speed rail fleet. This integration significantly reduced commuter travel times by more than 50% on certain routes to Kent and Europe.

State-of-the-art traffic modelling tools introduced for the Olympics are still in use today, and the Traffic Coordination Centre developed for London 2012 continues to manage major events in the city. The Olympics also encouraged changes in travel behaviour, promoting active travel, which have had lasting benefits for physical and mental well-being, as well as reducing road congestion during peak times.

Transport links also play a crucial role in community building by bringing people together for local sports events, fostering social cohesion and a sense of belonging. Additionally, international sports events promote cultural exchange, facilitated by transport systems that connect different parts of the world. These events not only support local economies and infrastructure but also enhance the social and cultural fabric of host cities and countries.

Many argue that today’s urban landscape is not conducive to casual street play with jumpers for goalposts, as in the “good old days”. Busy roads often divide and disrupt local communities. Moreover, these roads can deter walking, especially among children and the elderly. Heavy traffic poses a barrier to accessing facilities due to safety concerns, particularly for older and disabled individuals who may feel intimidated. Studies have consistently shown a link between traffic volume and quality of life, affecting social interactions with neighbours. Research has shown that a significant 75% of parents admit to allowing their children less outdoor playtime than before, with 43% expressing concerns about the dangers of busy roads.

In addition, it is crucial to integrate sports and leisure facilities into urban planning designs. This integration not only enhances accessibility and expands opportunities for physical activity but also encourages the use of sustainable transportation options, thereby reducing reliance on cars. By strategically locating sports and leisure amenities within urban areas, planners can create vibrant community spaces that promote health and well-being.

Accessible facilities such as parks, playgrounds, and sports complexes not only cater to diverse recreational needs but also contribute to a more active lifestyle among residents. Furthermore, designing pedestrian and cycling-friendly infrastructure around these facilities fosters a sense of connectivity and encourages environmentally friendly modes of transportation. This holistic approach to urban planning not only supports physical fitness but also enhances social interaction and overall urban liveability. For instance, a program aimed at promoting walking among adults aged 45 to 75 demonstrated significant success, utilising pedometers, personalised walking plans, behaviour change tips, and nurse consultations for one group. This initiative increased step counts and weekly activity levels across both groups, with sustained improvements observed over three years. Interestingly, the group receiving nurse support demonstrated enhanced outcomes while offering the best value for money.

Promoting active travel options such as walking and cycling can yield significant health benefits by encouraging a more active lifestyle. This approach complements sports participation by integrating physical activity into daily routines, thereby enhancing overall fitness levels, and contributing to the prevention of lifestyle-related diseases like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Moreover, active transport reduces the environmental impact by decreasing reliance on cars, leading to lower greenhouse gas emissions and improved air quality.

Reliable transport systems also play a crucial role in reducing barriers to regular participation in physical activities and sports. When people have access to dependable public transport, they are more likely to engage in sports and recreational activities. This includes attending sports events, participating in community sports programmes, and using local sports facilities. By reducing travel time and costs, reliable transport makes it easier for people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds to partake in physical activities, thereby promoting inclusivity and equity in sports.

Furthermore, the integration of active and reliable transport options into urban planning can create more cohesive communities. Safe and accessible pathways for walking and cycling, along with efficient public transport, encourage people to explore their neighbourhoods and engage with local amenities. This not only supports physical health but also fosters social interaction and community engagement.

Promoting active transport and ensuring reliable transport systems are essential strategies for enhancing public health and well-being. These measures reduce barriers to physical activity, support environmental sustainability, and contribute to more vibrant and connected communities. By prioritising these aspects in urban planning, towns and cities can create a supportive environment that encourages active lifestyles and broad participation in sports and recreational activities.

The relationship between transport and sport is multifaceted, encompassing accessibility, economic benefits, environmental sustainability, social cohesion, health, and operational logistics. Transport links play a crucial role in bringing communities together for local sports events, fostering social cohesion and a sense of belonging. Additionally, international sports events promote cultural exchange, facilitated by transport systems that connect different parts of the world. These events not only support local economies and infrastructure but also enhance the social and cultural fabric of host cities and countries.

In conclusion, the interplay between transport and sport has far-reaching implications for economic growth, environmental sustainability, public health, and social cohesion. Each aspect underscores the importance of integrating transport planning with sports development to maximise the positive impacts on society.

Tim Bellamy is Assistant Director – Transport at Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority

Tim originally published this article on LinkedIn on 14th June 2024

Feature Image: Author sourced

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