Objectives Although there is some evidence that public transport use confers public health benefits, the evidence is limited by cross-sectional study designs and health-related confounding factors. This study examines the effect of public transport use on changes in walking speed among older adults living in England, comparing frequent users of public transport to their peers who did not use public transport because of structural barriers (poor public transport infrastructure) or through choice.
Design Prospective cohort study.
Setting England, UK.
Participants Older adults aged ≥60 years eligible for the walking speed test. 6246 individuals at wave 2 (2004–2005); 5909 individuals at wave 3 (2006–2007); 7321 individuals at wave 4 (2008–2009); 7535 individuals at wave 5 (2010–2011) and 7664 individuals at wave 6 (2012–2013) of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing.
Main outcome measure The walking speed was estimated from the time taken to walk 2.4 m. Fixed effects models and growth curve models were used to examine the associations between public transport use and walking speed.
Results Older adults who did not use public transport through choice or because of structural reasons had slower walking speeds (−0.02 m/s (95% CI −0.03 to –0.003) and −0.02 m/s (95% CI −0.03 to –0.01), respectively) and took an extra 0.07 s to walk 2.4 m compared with their peers who used public transport frequently. The age-related trajectories of decline in walking speed were slower for frequent users of public transport compared with non-users.
Conclusions Frequent use of public transport may prevent age-related decline in physical capability by promoting physical activity and lower limb muscle strength among older adults. The association between public transport use and slower decline in walking speed among older adults is unlikely to be confounded by health-related selection factors. Improving access to good quality public transport could improve the health of older adults.