@bengoldacre on bicycles

Like my googlereader and my drafts folder, my podcast app has a frighteningly large backlog.  This evening while on random play it stumbled on an episode of Little Atoms from 2008, with Ben Goldacre, in which he talks about the media’s obsession with simple, glamorous and individualistic quick fixes to complex social problems:

The idea that food, and particularly very specific individual types of food or specific molecules in food, are the most important lifestyle risk factors for ill-health is itself a very political and I think bogus project. The reason that people in Hampstead live ten years longer than people in Kilburn isn’t because they’re careful to eat a handful of brazilnuts every day to make sure sure they’re not deficient in selenium, it’s because of a whole complex nexus of complex interlocking social and political issues involving, you know, work exposure, social support, stability and all of that stuff.

To profess to people that these commodifiable lifestyle interventions — because it’s always those, it’s never, you know, walking schoolbuses or cycle paths, it’s always, you know, cherry juice, something that a press agency can put a release out about — to pretend that diet is the biggest lifestyle risk factor for ill-health is to my mind a very right-wing individualist manifesto.  It’s the deserving sick in the way that people used to talk about the deserving poor.  You’ll be chatting to somebody and they’ll say, “well, I have to walk past this council estate every day on the way to the tube and you can say what you like but I think it’s got to be diet because you see some of these people and they’re feeding their kids crisps for breakfast and they’re only three and it’s got to be diet hasn’t it?”  Well, yeah, diet might be part of it, but I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.


All the evidence shows that public health interventions that have an effect on the health of a whole population are things that you do or change at the level of the whole population.  You know, change what’s available in the supermarket.  People eat what’s available to them easily and people behave in ways that are easy for them to behave.  So, say, if you make London a really hostile environment to cycle in then people won’t cycle in it.  If you design stupid cycle paths, some of which — I could show you photographs — are shorter than the length of a bicycle; if you put bicycle paths right next to a set of parked cars, so that if you cycled in it then every time somebody opened a door you would just die, but if you cycle outside it then all the cars get really indignant and beep their horns because they think that you should be in the little green cycle path then, if you do all of that then people will cycle less and people will be less healthy in your capital.  Whereas if you make excercise something that can be integrated naturally into people’s everyday lives then people will become healthier.

But fascinatingly all over the country there will be people who are working as public health professionals who will be sending out press releases saying, oh, we’re trying to get a walking schoolbus scheme together locally so that people don’t have to drive their children into obesity by driving them to school, and they’ll maybe use a little pun like that and feel really pleased with themselves, but they’ll be ignored and local papers won’t cover it and national papers won’t cover it, because newspapers want the goji berries, they want the glamorous easy quick fix.

It seemed an appropriate thing to share ahead of tonight’s Street Talk at the Yorkshire Grey, where Harry Rutter will be talking about the relationship between urban design and public health.

Sadly we have a society — or a media, at least — that does not merely ignore these projects in favour of glamorous miracle cures: we actively cry “state intervention” at anything that might make the world a better or nicer place.

15 thoughts on “@bengoldacre on bicycles”

    1. Yes. Unfortunately, it seems that newspapers promoting bullshit supplement pills is considered a nice helpful thing, but even hinting that somebody might benefit in any way from a bit of exercise makes you a holier-than-thou interfering health nazi :(

  1. Problems with cycling and walking are that they aren’t compatible with people’s “busy lifestyles”…

    Put simply – you won’t get people (or their kids) walking or cycling unless you force them into doing it by removing their car or the right to drive it – because they’re just “too busy” (although doing what, I’ve no idea)

    1. John, I think your comment really proves what Ben is saying (at least, as I understand/interpret it). Yes, motoring in the UK is the easier default for most people. But this is only because we’ve made it so. Half of the issue is absolutely that motoring has been made so excessively convenient that people are wasteful with it. But the other half is that while motoring has received massive state support, walking and cycling have at best been neglected, and at worst outright suppressed.

      There is nothing objectively difficult or slow about cycling. It is only “too slow” because most people don’t have the right bicycle, don’t store it in a convenient place, don’t have good cycle routes, and don’t have adequate and convenient cycle parking at the other end. It is difficult because the state has laid fast busy intimidating and impermeable motor routes through people’s neighbourhoods. Add to these issues the fact that people concrete over their front gardens for driveways, and the government provides them with dual carriageways and high-street parking: of course for most people it looks quicker and easier to drive the two miles. In the UK we have invested massively in making driving short distances easy, and both individuals and the state have laid countless barriers to cycling and walking.

      The Dutch do things the other way round. Their government and councils and planners make cycling quick direct safe inviting and easy — without removing the right to drive — and so all the Dutch cycle for journeys under five miles.

    1. What makes it different to “motoring”?

      There are bits of cycling that are commodifiable. Indeed, it is often argued that part of the problem is that, as cycling-as-transport has been suppressed, cycling has been sold almost exclusively as a sport that needs expensive specialist bikes and clothing and accessories. You should see the crap on the covers of the catalogues that Evans keep spamming me with.

      1. What makes it different from motoring, is the scale. If I do half my transit on a bicycle (I’m getting there….), that means half the gasoline, half the maintenance, and roughly double the automobile lifetime. It’s a net savings of money on transit; cars are blessedly expensive, so is their maintenance, so is their fuel (even in the US, even in a small car, you spend $30 on a fill-up, think about all the nice things you could get for that $30). If we paid our insurance by the mile, we’d save even more. All that money I save, is money taken from the pockets of someone invested in the status quo of drive-drive-drive. The people who will get that leftover money in the future, don’t know who they are, are not lobbying for that money now. The people who stand to lose money if we do much more biking, know who they are, and they care.

        There are other industries besides the obvious oil/insurance/auto industries; why would you spend a minute in a gym, if you had were riding a bike 50 miles per week? To the extent that biking prevents, treats, or improves chronic health conditions, money spent on medicines for those conditions (high blood pressure, cholesterol, dianetes), is not spent. A 5% reduction is entirely plausible, and though 5% sounds like not much, to a corporation in a competitive market, that comes right out of profits. They would care, and if they are thinking of their shareholders, they should be trying to come up with ways to discourage people from getting enough exercise (they’re in business first, health second).

  2. Unfortunately, people will only start taking up cycling if there are credible cycle routes in their area.

    Example such as those highlighted in Cycle Facility of the Month don’t help – neither do cycle lanes in residential areas (often apparently misinterpreted by motorists as a narrow parking bay) or “This road’s not wide enough for a cycle lane, so we’ll just paint cycle symbols on the road at odd intervals to remind motorists there may be cyclists about.”

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