Area‐based interventions offer the potential to increase physical activity for many sedentary people in countries such as the UK. Evidence on the effect of individual and area/neighbourhood influences on physical activity is in its infancy, and despite its value to policy makers a population focus is rarely used. Data from a population‐based health and lifestyle survey of adults in northwest England were used to analyse associations between individual and neighbourhood perceptions and physical activity. The population effect of eliminating a risk factor was expressed as a likely effect on population levels of physical activity. Of the 15461 responders, 21923 (27.1%) were physically active. Neighbourhood perceptions of leisure facilities were associated with physical activity, but no association was found for sense of belonging, public transport or shopping facilities. People who felt safe in their neighbourhood were more likely to be physically active, but no associations were found for vandalism, assaults, muggings or experience of crime. The number of physically active people would increase by 3290 if feelings of “unsafe” during the day were removed, and by 11237 if feelings of “unsafe” during the night were removed. An additional 8342 people would be physically active if everyone believed that they were “very well placed for leisure facilities”. Feeling safe had the potential largest effect on population levels of physical activity. Strategies to increase physical activity in the population need to consider the wider determinants of health‐related behaviour, including fear of crime and safety.