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?


More about ‘choice’

I put the word in inverted commas to make ‘choice’ seem a little opaque. Its meaning is usually assumed to be straightforward and it is assumed to be a Good Thing. Yes, choice is pretty good, but it is not at all straightforward.

For some purposes, ‘choice’ can be treated as a ‘black box’ – we’re not interested asking why people choose, we only need to know what they choose, treating that choice as a ‘revealed preference’. In case there are any economists reading this (unlikely), this sounds to me like a useful procedure for some purposes – the social sciences make use of simplification and abstraction just as the natural sciences do. But asking ‘what causes one choice over another?’ is highly relevant for other purposes and there is a lot of research (both observational and experimental) looking at this.

What I’m getting at here is that choice of travel behaviour (“oh well, now we’ve moved to the country we really must get a car”) is not neutral in the way that, say, choosing between the chocolate gateau and the strawberry cheesecake would be. If so many people chose the cheesecake that you couldn’t find decent gateau anymore, it wouldn’t matter that much. It would be sad for the choc-fans, of course, and a slight reduction in cultural liveliness for everyone, but I don’t think there would be the justification for legislation, choc-awareness campaigns or public subsidy for gateau-making equipment. Nobody’s freedom would be impinged on in any important way. But the current transport arrangements (i.e. the primacy of personal driving) do violate freedom in important ways, (which I will talk about in a future post) and they do cause harm, as previously argued .

So we do want to ask why people make the travel choices they do, and to insist otherwise (“modal agnosticism”) is, I think, a misunderstanding of economics and a fantasy about the possibility of a “level playing field”.

Choices are not isolated.

Right then, we make choices in a context. So for example, it might make sense to do your shopping once a week, or fortnight, in an out of town supermarket – it saves time and money which you need for other things. Correct choice. But why is there an out of town supermarket, with a jinormous free car park, and super-cheap food? Because a heroic entrepreneur who loves to take risks set one up? Oh come on. A decision was made to allow a very rich company (which knows exactly how small a risk it is taking) to build it. The company’s behaviour is fine – that’s what companies do and competitive aggression can, if kept in harness, be very beneficial.

But society does not have to say “yes” to every request from aggressive companies, because what is good for Tesco’s business is not necessarily good for society’s business. And yet, the more “yes’s” have already been said, the harder it becomes to say “no”, the harder it becomes to even think “no”. It does become genuinely difficult. It has become genuinely difficult.

That small planning decision to allow the out-of-town supermarket sits within a context of myriad other small planning decisions about the built environment, stretching back throughout much of the previous century, but which were all made with the presumption that more car-ownership was a good thing, would produce good results, would increase wealth and make us happier. There was a presumption that car-use should be fostered (and doesn’t that word sound just a wee bit, erm, nannyish?). Those decisions brought about the current situation, where many people ‘have to’ (and a few really do have to), drive everywhere.

The way out of this situation is via myriad small decisions which admit that there were some unanticipated consequences of our previous decisions and that we now want something different.