Hypermobility?

An essay about personal transport that I often recommend to people (but which they only occasionally read) is John Adam’s 1996 essay Can technology save us? (if you do open the link, don’t be deterred that the pdf appears to be 32 pages long – the article is only 16 pages).

It is worth reading the whole thing but in essence it presents an argument that it is possible to have too much of a good thing and in this case the good thing is personal mobility. Not the technology that gives us that mobility but the mobility itself. This idea seems not outrageous but simply unthinkable. Once one has managed to think it, then it seems outrageous – patronising, elitist, anti-progress and just self-evidently bad. Or at least the conclusion seems bad if you haven’t followed the arguments that lead to it. Here is the crux of it: a personal choice made by one ordinary person is negligible. Hurrah for choice, we’re all in favour. The very same choice made by many people is not negligible, yet in the case of transport, this is ignored. Adams argues that we were not (and are not) given the true choice. He puts this is the form of three imaginary opinion polls:

1. Would you like a car, unlimited air-miles, and all the computers and communications facilities presently enjoyed by Bill Gates?

” … at present most people in the world have never flown, and do not own cars or computers. Their answer to this question, everywhere in the world is overwhelmingly yes. In answering, most people probably imagine the world as it is now but with themselves having access to the enlarged range of opportunities that they see present car and computer owners enjoying […] politcians, technologists and transport and communication planners everywhere are encouraging people to believe that everyone’s wish can be granted”

2. Would you like to live in the sort of world you would get if everyone’s wish were granted?

For such an opinion poll to yield meaningful answers there would need to be agreement about what such a world would be like. It would probably be grossly polluted, noisy, congested and anxious about the security of its energy supplies. Let us assume, however … that technology will solve these problems. What else might we expect? [drawing on the previous discussion in this paper] we can can speculate about some of its main features:

  • It will be a polarized world. Not everyone’s wish can be granted. About a third of the world’s population will never be old enough or fit enough to drive … Their disadvantage will increase as [everyone else’s] car dependence increases. they will be second-class citizens, dependent fortheir mobility on the withered remains of public transport or the goodwill of car owners. [universal car ownership will never be possible]
  • The world will become one continuous suburb. The traditional city, built for people not cars, could not exist. The last unspoilt islands and wilderness areas – which travel writers incite us with a sense of urgency to visit before they are spoiled – will be spoiled …
  • Geographical communities in which people know their neighbours will be replaced by aspatial communities of interest. People with similar tastes, interests and life-styles will commune on the internet or meet at conferences and vacation resorts. More high-security enclaves of the wealthy will be developed, but because of the fragmenting force of their inhabitants mobility, they will not function as true communities […]
  • Travel opportunities will be destroyed. The cultural and linguistic diversity in the world – the experience of which provides the motivation for much travel – will be obliterated by the rising tide of tourism […]
  • Fragile ecosystems will be destroyed: wilderness retreats with access to it. The provision for parking and road space for more than ten times as many motor vehicles will require paving much more of the world […]
  • Street life will disappear. The spread out scale will defeat pedestrians, and traffic will make cycling too dangerous. There will be no local shops to walk to. […] A world full of traffic and strangers will require the constant supervision of children who will no longer be alllowed to play in the street. […]
  • Law enforcement will become Orwellian. A world full of highly mobile strangers will require ever more ingenious technology to detect and apprehend wrong doers. As travel becomes easier physically it will become more difficult bureaucratically. […]
  • […]The ease with which one can live one’s life in a community of interest will diminish the contact people have with their geographical neighbours. concern for the local environment and the welfare of one’s geographical neighbours will diminish as people sped more time in cyberspace
  • Political authority will become more remote […] As technology deluges us in information, it leaves us less time for contemplation and reflection, and forces us to employ ever cruder perceptual filters in order to make sense of it all […]
  • Democracy will disappear […] democracies, to function effectively, require common values, and a measure of agreement about societal goals forged out of common experience. If distance is vanquished the requisite minimum level of concensus and trust will be unattainable … “

And what of the third question? The one that we really ought to ask?

3. Would you like to live in a cleaner, quieter, more convivial world in which you know your neighbours, it is safe to walk and cycle, and children are allowed to play in the street?

Transport and communication planning is in the grip of of a linear, backward-looking vision which extrapolates past “progress” indefinitely into the future. The vision is being sold on a false prospectus that invites individuals to imagine the world as it is now but with themselves having acess to the enlarged range of opportunites currently enjoyed by a small elite – an impossible world in which everyone is richer and more mobile than average.

Transport and communications planners alone cannot, of course, create the world described in opinon poll 3. But they can create conditions which will make such a world impossible […]

He therefore argues for priority to be given to policies which:

give absolute priority to those forms of land use and modes of transport – walking, cycling and local bus services – that promote a human scale of living

Well. That seems an extreme dystopian view of everything. It simply cannot be right. I’m sure my selective quotation does not look convincing – clearly Adams has overlooked this, that and the other obvious thing, and of course it was written in 1996. However, I think it is worth reading the whole thing. When I read it myself I found his conclusions chilling.

Ultimately the argument comes to the conclusion that we simply have to travel less – and yet I see no possibility of this happening because I cannot see that there is any limit on our desire for mobility. Obviously, it is better to be able to get about, travel a bit. Obviously, it’s bad to be confined to your village or town all your life and never see the sea or visit a foreign country. And yet, if too much casual travel (and who decides what is “casual”?) is as problematic as Adams argues, where do we draw the line? And who draws it? There is no logical point at which increasing travel passes from “life-enhancing” to “life diminishing”. As with so many sustainability issues, we simply have to engage with this – yet it is almost certain that the more-powerful are going to try and hijack it as a way of maintaining their power.

So don’t expect a simple conclusion from me – this isn’t that sort of blog.

******

See the following other posts:

The problem

How much choice do we really have?

More about choice

Freedom

The problem restated

Epidemic of sloth

I have mentioned previously that I reckon one of the most serious of the negative effects of motorized traffic is car-induced sloth.

There is a ton of evidence that physical activity is almost incredibly beneficial to health – if it were a drug you could swallow they would have put it in the water supply by now. “A ton of evidence”. Hmmm yes, that is a bit handwavy, I know. So, for my imaginary reader who is a naïf in the shouty world of transport policy:

* A bibliography of some actual proper journal papers

*A more lengthy (and chatty) compendium of evidence from Cycling England (and the very fact that the government created a quango to promote cycling tells you something about the amount of evidence)

If you care to google some suitable terms, you will find that there is more.

*****

So yes, ok fine. Personally I’m prepared to take as given that moving about under my own muscle-power is good for me. I don’t have to chase up every single journal article – I’ll trust the published work of epidemiologists and medical statisticians and physiologists and whoever because I have no reason whatever to doubt that their knowledge is much more deeply grounded than mine in their areas of expertise. So physical activity is good for you, and it is very “dose responsive” – even a small amount is beneficial and you have to do a huge amount for it to be damaging.

I was thinking about this yesterday, while walking back home from Bristol City Museum, where I’d gone to buy a nice card for my mum in the museum shop (about half an hour each way). I wondered about the other side of the problem – how much physical activity are “we” actually doing?

I knew the recommended minimum levels – a total of two and a half hours a week of brisk walking or normal cycling plus a bit of muscle-type exercise. Two and a half hours walking? That’s really not a lot. A fifteen-minute-each-way commute to work would cover it – then dig the garden at the weekend and you could be smug. And anyway, the world seems to be chock-full of amateur athletes these days. Whole magazines devoted to triathlon and running and cycling and climbing and anything you can think of. Whole shops full of (frankly, rather sexy, cough) sports gear. Endless, endless, internet chat about the arcana of sports footwear. Everyone’s at it! I was suddenly overcome with doubt – surely there just couldn’t be a problem with levels of physical activity? Find some research.

First stop for this kind of question has to be the Office of National Statistics. From there I found the publication statistics on obesity, physical activity and diet 2013. The physical activity section relied heavily on some research from 2008, the health survey for England – 2008: physical activity and fitness.

Part of the survey involved a people wearing accelerometers while going about their daily lives so we have some objective measure of activity levels. The standout sentence in the summary report was:

Based on accelerometry, only 6%of men and 4%of women met the government’s current recommendations for physical activity, by achieving at least 30 minutes of moderate or vigorous activity on at least five days in the week of accelerometer wear, accumulated in bouts of at least 10 minutes

5% of the population manage to do what is, or should be, for an average person (and I’m sorry to have to put it this way, but really) the equivalent of a piddly bit of walking. It even counted if you did it in 10 minute bursts – the time it took me to walk to the bus or tube when I lived in London, the time it takes me to walk to the coach station in Bristol.

But wait, you think, maybe the survey included a disproportionate number of “old folk”. Well it was a proper large random sample, so the proportions would have matched those in the wider population, but just before I disappear in puff of flabbergastedness, let me add that, of course, as you would expect, the youngest age group did take a lot more exercise:

Men and women aged 16-34 were most likely to have met the recommendations (11% and 8%respectively),

I hardly know what to say. Yes, I knew that levels of activity were not as good as they should be, but it really hadn’t connected for me quite how bad things are … and yet there’s all that hoo-har about sport and fitness and going to the gym and doing marathons for charity … oh, we are such symbolic creatures aren’t we?

The problem

Previously on Psychobikeology: As a child I resented being carted around in a car all the time, as an adult I loved to get about by walking and cycling and now I’m miffed that cycling is unpleasant because of all the cars.

Whatever. Wouldn’t the easiest solution be to adjust my attitude a bit?

No. The problem is not personal. The transport situation in the UK today – the amount of motor traffic which is tolerated – even thought of as ‘good’ – is damaging. The problem is too much motor traffic and the problem affects everyone, including the folks who love their dear little cars.

Why is there “too much traffic” rather than “not enough roads”? Why are there “too many private cars” rather than “too many petrol engines – we’ll be ok when we’ve finessed electric vehicles and algal biodiesel”? Why is it ‘damaging’?

Here’s the list (linked to the corresponding entries in the dictionary. internal links don’t work in some versions of IE):

Sloth
CO
Noise
NOx
Particulates
Congestion
Danger
Land take
Resource depletion
Social atomisation
Hypermobility

Oh and carbon dioxide emissions of course – but I’ve left that off the list (even though it is important) because it is something of a diversion at this point. You will notice that even a non-polluting engine would only take out a few items from the above list.

The other big item is the opportunity cost – too much driving crowds out cycling and walking, preventing a public good.

I’d say that the biggest immediate good of cycling and walking is the health benefit. Just look up ‘health benefits of exercise’. Walking and cycling knock ‘going to the gym’ into a cocked hat because they require less willpower. and they make you feel good.