Active Travel Directions

Back in 2006, Sustrans published a leaflet titled How to produce active travel directions for your visitors and staff.  It doesn’t seem to be on their website anymore (at least not that I can find) but I don’t know why because it’s useful and it can still be found here.

Anyway, quoting from the leaflet, the general idea is that you should:

Start with the assumption that people should not have to use a car to get to your

premises; [...]

Lay out your travel guidance in the healthiest order – start with walking and

cycling, then public transport (because there is usually a walk at each end of the

journey) and finally car travel. Of course some people will need to drive, but put

information about driving and parking last, so that the healthier ways to travel are

most prominent.

As a rule of thumb, a distance of about two miles is walkable for many people and

up to about five miles is reasonable to cycle.”

Now a common grumble amongst active travel advocates is that plenty of lip service is paid to the importance of walking and cycling but that’s where it stops: mere fine words without the buttered parsnips of effective infrastructure. I’d agree, of course of course of course, but a lot of the time we don’t even get the lip service. And that really grates – either they can’t even be bothered to mouth the words – or, more likely and even worse – they don’t even know that they are supposed to be paying lip service. And, if the message hasn’t yet got out to all well-meaning-liberal-arty-sustainability-greeny folks, then that means the whole active travel agenda has just failed, failed, failed.

So what has got this stirred up for me? Every so often – genuinely, not looking for things to get worked up about, not even thinking about active travel, with quite other of my many projects in mind – I look up the web for interesting places and interesting short courses. And, if anything catches my fancy, I look at the “how to find us” page to see if it’s practical to get there by public transport.

I found an interesting place recently, in the Cotwolds, so not too far from Bristol. Their website categorises their courses into: Arts, Sustainability, Spirituality and Wellbeing. Great – and I’m not saying that in a mocking tone – it looks a lovely place. These definitely count as well-meaning-liberal-arty-sustainability-greeny folks. There was a wood-carving course that looked an interesting way to spend a weekend. So I went to the “how to find us” page. Which consists of :

96 words on “driving” including an invitation to “contact us if you would like more detailed instructions”

62 words on “by plane” (It’s also a conference venue, so not quite as bonkers as it looks. I’ve written at tedious length about flying elsewhere.).

Sandwiched in between these two are 26 words on “By train”

And that’s it. But it is actually worse than that. Here is the whole of the “By train” section:

If coming by train, take a taxi from the Stroud train station (max. 2 miles). For hiking enthusiasts, it takes approximately half an hour by foot!

WHAT? It’s only two effing miles from the station. Have they heard of bicycles? Maybe it’s on a gigantic hill? Who knows? So bloody TELL ME. Yes, I can read a map – but then so can your driving friends you’re so eager to help. Is it in a bus desert, or have they merely not bothered to find out? And And And …. what the hell is that exclamation mark about? Two miles is not a flaming “hike”. It does not require “enthusiasm”. It’s the distance I sometimes walk to the main station in Bristol – and really it’s not that unusual, if you bother to ask.

Yes, I know this was intended to be cheerful and humorous in tone, but it completely misses the mark. It seems to say the author thinks that choosing to walk for half an hour is kind of weird.

So did I write to them?

Yes of course I did. And I wrote as politely and non-preachily as I know how, I cited some research without being too academic about it and I explained how active travel slots into the sustainability agenda. And of course I had no reply. TL;DR for one thing. Or my email is languishing in their spam folder – I sent the sustrans leaflet as an attachment, when I should have linked to it. Equally likely though, is that it’s above the pay-grade of the admin-person who answers the general email. Someone else, with whom they have no contact, authored their website and they have no power, knowledge or authority to tweak the fixed pages.

The other possibility of course, is that my letter was read, but with sheer bafflement. I tried to raise the same issue when I was an Open University tutor. In this case the instructions were “how to get a tutorial venue” (and oh, the detail and concern about parking and the complete absence of information about anything else). I was met with blank incomprehension, which hardened into impenetrable defensiveness as I tried to clarify.

At least lip-service is kind of comforting. I’ll take it as an alternative to the public implication that I’m weird.

Why haven’t I linked to the offending page?

I don’t like this aggressive internet culture and I don’t want to pick them out. It wasn’t the fault of one particular organisation – it’s just the whole damn systemic crap.

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Commuter cycling: does it help your health?

In an earlier post I explained that recently I have been making more individual cycling trips than at any point in the last thirty-odd years. I also commented, when comparing the subjective experiences of cycling and walking, that cycling offers a wider range of physical intensity.

Even though most of my recent cycle trips have been short distances ( < 5 miles) it has been very striking that even a short, slow, flat, offroad journey will involve bursts of energy that you simply do not get in a walking trip. This is partly because nowhere, nowhere is completely flat. But you don’t really remember it. Thirty yards up a bit of slope, enough to make you pant for a few seconds? Forgotten as soon as its over. Accelerating to get past a bus? You do it without thinking or bothering. And these events occur even in the trips of the gentlest, the slowest, the most pootlesome of bike riders.

This struck me as something where – viewed purely as everyday transport – cycling really does win over walking. Raising physical intensity in a walking trip is difficult. With effort, you can just about make walking as hard as a rather gentle bike ride. I had lately taken to breaking into a minimalist jog for parts of walking journeys and of course Bristol is famously hilly – but I’m both temperamentally impatient and interested in experimenting with this kind of thing and I have to admit that truly vigorous utility walking is never going to be that popular.

So I was very pleased to see my speculation confirmed at Commuter cycling: does it help your health? a talk by Professor Ashley Cooper [note, I’ll change the link to the actual powerpoints, once they’re up on the Bristol Uni website]. The talk was one of the events of the Bristol Cycle Festival

There is now a ton of evidence about the benefits of what has been given the jargon term “moderate to vigorous physical activity” and Prof Cooper sketched out some of the seminal studies (the London bus crews for instance – conductors and drivers provided a really neat pair of otherwise similar groups which differ consistently in their workplace levels of physical activity). However he went on to say that there is “little hard evidence” of the specific benefits of cycling – but there is some. (By “hard” he meant well-designed academic studies – there is of course masses of personal experience – anecdotal evidence is not necessarily trivial in the sense that it can point at a real phenomenon, but the proper studies do have to be done to test our intuitions).

Sorry, I’m digressing – I made fairly extensive notes and I don’t wish to just transcribe them. To get back to the point I started with, Professor Cooper said plainly that the available evidence shows that:

“cycling gives you a bigger bang for your buck in terms of health benefits [than walking]”

And that benefit is thought to be because of the higher overall intensity of cycling:

“it is intensity which gives you the health benefits”

The research into physical activity has always shown that intensity is important. “Intensity” (how much it raises your heart rate) is to be counterpoised to “duration” and the current thinking is moving towards saying that “high intensity + short duration” is better than “low intensity + long duration”. I see that my notes contain the line “for increases in life expectancy – duration does not matter”.

Not sure how accurate that note is – it does sound pretty radical. It’s interesting to me how knowledge about exercise and health has changed over the years. At one point it seemed to be thought that beneficial exercise had to be both quite intense and of fairly lengthy duration. Decades ago I recall being told that going for a five- or ten-minute run couldn’t possibly do me any good at all – and as for walking hah! Well I’ve gradually watched the advice change and now it seems that almost any exercise at all will do you some good. This is great news. (And, incidentally, a nice example of the way the way that science changes its picture of the world as more evidence comes in). Any exercise will do you some good, but (in a broad way) greater intensity gives better results.

A complication

My earlier post on the epidemic of sloth was just a little disingenuous because I omitted an important caveat. The report I referred to was clear that physical activity wasn’t quite the whole story. The other half of the picture is the amount of sedentary time – if moving is a plus then sitting is a minus. You could take a good dose of exercise and then wipe out the benefit by sitting at a desk for the rest of the day. This was completely new to me; Prof Cooper said that it is new to everyone because the conclusions are recent.

The importance of decreasing the amount of time you spend sitting inertly on your bum is yet another plus for cycling – a “double hit” in Prof Cooper’s words – because the time on the bike is time spent not lazing about. You might be sitting on a saddle but you are active. It’s an even bigger plus for walking because walking journeys take so long (I’m currently at the stage where I arrive half an hour early for everything because I’m still applying walking calculations and can’t quite believe how much faster the bike is).

This caveat about taking care not to sit around for most of the day is important. The finding that, on the whole, intensity is more important than duration can be easily misrepresented. The BBC Horizon documentary the truth about exercise (the full versions on youtube have unfortunately been taken down) did not exactly misrepresent things and it did spend plenty of time discussing the importance of non-sedentariness but the documentary gave a misleading overall impression. Nevertheless it was good enough to be worth looking out for repeats, if you haven’t already seen it.

The structure of the documentary resulted in a foregrounding of some research findings about capsule exercise. The findings are that it is possible to get the full benefits of exercise from a very small amount of maximum intensity exercise. In the documentary we see the presenter (the very affable, and medically trained, Michael Mosley) following a programme where he does three twenty-second intervals on an exercise bike. The idea is that you really have to go absolutely flat out – you need to be gasping and groaning at the end – but you only need do this minute’s-worth three times a week. This is quite staggering I’d agree. Unfortunately the documentary did not make it clear enough that this needs to be done in conjunction with reducing the amount of the sitting down. The programme was not structured in such a way that the central argument about exercise came through. Although all the pieces were in place it succumbed to the gosh-wow factor (perhaps from a sad lack of confidence in the mental acuity of its audience?) and this resulted in a degree of confusion. (Horizon seems to do this rather a lot).

Incidentally Prof Cooper remarked that when he presents to audiences of fellow academics and practitioners in the area of physical activity, there are always a bunch of people at the back who have deliberately chosen to stand rather than sit. That seems perhaps a little ostentatious to me, but in case you’re wondering, I’m writing this post standing at my desk, with the laptop perched on a bunch of boxfiles and I’ve been doing part of my desk work this way for a few months now.

Finally

This all seems plain enough to me. If you get to work on a bike you get some reasonably intense exercise every week day. Furthermore, the time it takes to get to work is not time spent immobile in a chair. Double hit.

This knowledge is not a big secret. “The government has been told about this. It does know … it’s up to them to do something about it” said Prof Cooper. We’ve been so battered by half-baked US rhetoric about “big government” that perhaps it needs spelling out: the government spends my taxes to do things that I cannot do on my own by means of my own individual choices. I damn well want my taxes to purchase public health by means of doing what is necessary to foster walking and cycling. Increased public health means an increase in the amount of choice you have in your individual pursuit of satisfaction. It leads to more freedom.