Where am I?*

More politics. Our local Cycling Campaign recently organised the Bristol Cycling Summit.

I felt quite inspired by it. Amongst other things, words were said about “nettle grasping”. The chair of the meeting referred to the need for “corporate collective cojones – someone is going to have to take the pain”. The necessity for “sticks as well as carrots” was mentioned, together with the absence of an “easy way out”.

Good. It really does feel as if things are about to change – maybe they have already changed and this will only become clear with hindsight. Maybe. Unfortunately my “feeling” is not necessarily an accurate indicator of where we are. I might be feeling that maybe we’re on the cusp of taking a similar route to the Netherlands simply because I haven’t been around long enough. Although I have been broadly aware of the active-travel argument ever since I bought a copy of Richard’s Bicycle Book at the end of the seventies, I have only been involved in what is really the very shallowest of activism for a few years.

It has been argued on a number of blogs (if you’re reading this, then you’ve probably come across this) that the abstract argument has been largely won. Walking-and-cycling (despite the occasional elected noodlehead of the Hammond and Pickles variety) has been a policy “fluffy bunny” at least since the early nineties – perhaps even earlier. Fluffy bunnies are cute, everyone likes them, almost nobody is actually against them, but they are not, you know, a serious grown-up animal. So what we get is a cycle of Fine Words followed by inadequate funding combined with a failure to take any decisions which might actually do anything. It was a previous turn of this cycle that brought us all the dangerous and inadequate “cycling infrastructure” that is so striking the moment one gets on a bike. As that cycle went on, the timid infrastructure was neglected and forgotten (except by anyone who attempted to use it). Now a new round has started, active travel is in the limelight once more, fine words are being spoken, more people are riding bikes, things are looking good …

So where am I? Have I wandered in at the early part of the cycle, heard the fine words for the first time and naively been inspired by them? Or is it really different this time? Or perhaps not even “different this time”, because the cycle is more of a spiral – even the crap cycling facilities have pushed things forward a little bit, we’re not where we were back in the eighties when I was a regular London cyclist?

There isn’t a doubt that the amount of cycling in both London and Bristol has increased. But what about life outside the big trendy cities? I’ve extracted this graph from the figures in one of the many, many tables in the National Travel Survey for 2012. To be exact, it comes from table NTS0304 and represents not average number of ‘trips’ but journey ‘stages’ per person per year – so it catches the people who use a bike to get to the station and so on. I’ve included walking as a comparison.

NTS2012 walking_cycling

I think all one can really say about that is “hmmmmmm”. So I’ll cheer myself up by presenting just the cycling data (the data-scrupulous will notice that, as with the above graph, the scale on the x-axis is not completely consistent – but all it means is that the first bit of the line is “squashed up” and it doesn’t really do anything deceptive to the data presentation. I just didn’t feel like faffing around to correct this).

NTS2012 cycling

That doesn’t really make it much better, though there is, arguably – going through the ziggy bit of the line, which is what you’d expect with such low numbers anyway – perhaps, maybe, an upward trend from about 2003 onward (and I shall now remind myself about the nature of exponential growth – nothing seems to happen for ages and then, in a big whoosh, an enormous amount happens. Or you can have “tipping points” if you prefer. Anyway, I do sort of remain guardedly optimistic).


Completely off topic comment – nothing to do with transport whatsoever. If you haven’t already read it, Where Am I? is an entertaining (in the sense of ‘mind-twistingly strange’) philosophical story by Daniel Dennett)


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?