Should the war on obesity be a key objective of transport policy?

I know people who have the option of driving but instead take the train so they can improve their physical fitness. It takes longer than driving, but since they’re going to work anyway, walking to the station is an easy way to exercise. It makes good sense; I’ve walked or cycled to work at various times for the same reason.

However it’s one thing to make a private choice to use public transport in order to exercise – it’s another thing altogether to elevate the war on obesity and other health issues, as a matter of public policy, to the status of a key goal of the transport system. That’s what organisations like the Planning Institute and the National Transport Commission propose, but it’s not self-evident to me that it’s a good idea. It’s worth thinking about it further.

There’s a paradox here. The very point of public transport is to extend personal mobility. At the end of the nineteenth century when everyone other than the very wealthy walked, the arrival of trams and trains greatly enriched people’s lives by overcoming the limitations of walking. Now they could travel further to better jobs or better houses, take the family to the beach on Sunday, or visit friends and relatives in more distant suburbs. The whole point of public transport was to travel faster than walking so people could travel further in the same time.

The panoply of exercise-related issues like obesity are not a transport problem, they’re a social problem. They’re a result of eating more and of expending less effort in all aspects of life, not just in the way we travel. It’s true we are much more likely today to drive than walk, cycle or use public transport, but the avoidance of effort is true of almost everything we do.

Most of us work in jobs that don’t involve anything even remotely like the level of physical effort expended by the average worker of a few generations ago. If we did, Occ Health and Safety would have a fit. On the home front, we’ve had “labour saving” devices like refrigerators, stoves, washing machines and vacuum cleaners for generations. Television and home delivered newspapers mean we don’t even need to go out to get information and entertainment.

Consider the giant strides we’ve made in avoiding exertion over the last twenty years. Computers have eliminated the effort of going to the bank, the booking office, the travel agent or the bookshop. We blow leaves rather than rake them, we use power tools to drive nails and screws, we answer the phone without getting out of our seat, and we cook meals without having to prepare them. We control our air conditioners, central heating, TVs and sound systems with remotes. Climate control means our bodies don’t even consume much energy to keep warm – many children barely know what it means to shiver.

The decline of effort pervades all aspects of our lives, not just how we travel. For better or worse, it’s one of the ways we define progress. So transport – and that essentially means the car – is only one part of the health problem.

And in fact it’s a relatively small part, because the main cause of obesity is what we eat, not how little we exercise. It’s likely to be far more effective to target food than public transport.

Lennert Veerman, Senior Research Fellow at Queensland University’s School of Population Health, points to a recent study which argues the main force driving the obesity pandemic is an increase in consumption. He says the 1970s was:

When the food supply started to change radically. The supply of refined carbohydrates and fat increased and more food was mass prepared rather than cooked at home. The era of easily available, cheap, tasty, highly promoted, energy-dense foods had begun. This view of the causes of the rise in obesity prevalence suggests the likely solutions lie in the area of the supply and promotion of food. And research supports that notion.

He says if governments are serious about tackling obesity their priority should be food. They should tax unhealthy food, limit advertising and restrict availability in schools. He also says healthy food should be subsidised.

I think it’s always risky to extend the core purpose of an undertaking to include secondary objectives, particularly when the organisation concerned is in or close to the public sector. There’s always the possibility the core purpose might be compromised by ‘goal succession’. In some circumstances that might be a risk worth taking but in this case the argument for exercise seems pretty shaky to begin with.

I might be cynical but I can imagine scarce funds being diverted to transit services that are doubtful on mobility criteria but get over the line because of their claimed health benefits (or vice versa!). Perhaps one day a marginal service will be abolished with the excuse that another is a short health-enhancing walk away.

There’s also a paternalistic aspect to the “transport as exercise” meme that I think could rankle many travellers. We already know the great majority of travellers prefer a fast drive to a slower public transport journey so they can decide for themselves how to use their time. Telling people they should use public transport because it’s good for them might not be popular with those who see themselves as time-short.

I see no problem with public transport being promoted to users as an exercise choice (although I think it would be better if it were in the context of a wider “get active” message that looks at all aspects of day-to-day life). However I don’t think making obesity prevention an explicit and formal objective of transport policy is either a necessary idea or a good idea. Better to “stick to the knitting” and focus on the core purpose of providing mobility.

What’s more intuitively appealing to me is the converse – accessibility to health services (including preventative ones) should be a key objective of health policy. Hopefully the current Parliamentary inquiry into environmental design and public health in Victoria has an open mind.

24 Comments on “Should the war on obesity be a key objective of transport policy?”

  1. I don’t disagree with your argument that public transports provision should not be primarily focussed on fighting obesity, but I do think you’ve overstated the emphasis both of these reports have made on this point.

    The PIA document covers a wide range of methods planning can influence health, from creating environments that: have eyes on the street; are attractive; and have mixed use development. Public transport provision always seems to come secondarily to building infrastructure that supports walking and cycling when transport is mentioned.

    The NTC report lists 12 reasons why its transport planning is important, from energy security to social exclusion. Health benefits are the 12th point.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I think it only appears that I “overstated the emphasis” on transport because I didn’t mention the other issues the IPA report addressed. But heck, my post isn’t about those other things, it’s about transport! And there are links to the docs……

      I don’t think the order of the NTC’s reasons means much. They’ve got climate change well down the list at 8th and social exclusion at 11th, but ageing of population 3rd. I wouldn’t say it’s random but I don’t think they intend the twelve reasons to be ranked, least of all cardinally.

      • Alan you are correct, there is no logic to the listing of the key national challenges for transport. The first challenge listed, Australia’s productivity performance, is equally important as the last one listed, physical inactivity and obesity.

        • Alan Davies says:

          Hmmm… worries me if that means the NTC sees all those objectives as having equal weight in shaping transport policy.

          • Just to clarify, we didn’t list these in any order so in this section when laying them out there was no difference in the challenge. These were purely for information and set the scene to tell the story and build for the next sections. If we were to go down to the detail of rating, this would digress from the actual conversation report is starting.

  2. Johnyboy says:

    I think that obesity problem in australia can not be over stated and that cost through public health is enormous. I think that anything that can reduce obesity is a good thing though.

  3. Michael says:

    I think you might be correct regarding public transport. However looking at the issue from another perspective, the dangers cars pose to cyclists and pedestrians reduces peoples ability to exercise and to choose alternative transport options. You state that “the great majority of travellers prefer a fast drive to a slower public transport journey”, but how many people are really free to choose this option? I’m lucky that I have the option of cycling to work, but for many of my colleagues this is not an option, they are either stuck with public transport or stuck with cars and the reasons are complex especially for families or for couples where they both work. It’s sad to say that I also wouldn’t recommend people cycle to work either because the reality of cycling through Melbourne as a commuter is that it is too dangerous for all except the experienced riders and the desperate.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Risk of injury and/or illness is one of those generic things that all manufacturers and service providers have to take seriously. This applies to virtually everything – from condoms to toasters, haircuts, education, cycling, and so on. It’s the sort of core objective the transport system should give priority to. Obesity isn’t.

  4. john says:

    Inactivity is one of the causes of obesity, and promoting active transport is one of the solutions. Agree that it should not be put more highly than that.

    Probably agree that it is not good for public health to be an explicit goal of transport policy, for the reasons you suggest.

    However that does not rule out that promoting active transport should be an explicit goal of health policy.

    • Alan Davies says:

      “However that does not rule out that promoting active transport should be an explicit goal of health policy”.

      I agree – makes good sense.

    • Providing for active transport should be a explicit goal of transport policy, i.e. bike lanes should be marked wherever feasible, footpaths provided everywhere (any transport planner that can’t provide a footpath has failed).

      This seems to me, the main point of the PIA report at the least. If you don’t build footpaths and bikepaths, bike parking facilities, etc, then expect everyone to drive.

  5. Q.Maisie says:

    It does my head in to think that transport planners somewhere might be contemplating how to make the walk to access transport longer. It immediately brings back memories of my mum after a long day standing on her feet as a shop assistant, struggling with a bag of groceries up the hill from our nearby train station. People that have a had a long hard day at work do not need government to tell them the walk from the train will make them healthy when all the poor worker wants to do is get home, quickly!

  6. Steve says:

    “I might be cynical but I can imagine scarce funds being diverted to transit services that are doubtful on mobility criteria but get over the line because of their claimed health benefits (or vice versa!).”

    – Appropriately, Victorian Department of Transport cost-benefit guidelines do now factor in health benefits of a new transport interchange, eg walking to and from the station. Use of the phrase ‘get over the line’ in the article suggests that the project may have ‘cheated’, but if the CBA guidelines are applied consistently to all projects, on what is a real benefit, then I do not see this as being a concern. I would add that it will always be only a small part of the benefit stream…

    • Alan Davies says:

      We don’t build interchanges for the primary purpose of promoting exercise. I would argue any project that falls short on it’s primary purpose shouldn’t nevertheless get built because a secondary objective like exercise took it from negative territory to positive in the BCA analysis. If that happened I wouldn’t call it cheating, I’d call it bad management.

  7. RED says:

    I find it disappointing that you and all of the other respondents have bought into the ‘War on Obesity” slogan without giving it any thought. From where I’m standing, this is code for “let’s bully the fatties because they are an easy target”.

    People tend to forget that fat plays a role in our health, and that we all need a certain level of it. Buying into the health lobby’s bully-boy tactics promotes low self-esteem amongst people who struggle with their weight, and it also encourages eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulemia.

    You yourself have acknowledged above that the real problem is not obesity as such, it is the ill-health caused by insufficient activity and poor diet. Obesity is one outward sign of this in one section of the community, but it is not the only sign. I emphasise, obesity is a symptom, not a cause, and fat people should not be demonised in this way. You can be fat and perfectly healthy, and skinny and unwell. How many fit and seemingly healthy men drop dead of a heart attack each year from cholesterol clogged arteries?

    Speaking as someone who has been victimised all my life because of my physical size, I know only too well how the skinnies think they can patronise and bully fat people with impunity. I also know the extreme difficulty of losing weight when your body is genetically programmed to stack it on. Dieting has destroyed my metabolism and severely impacted on my health, due to my stupidity in buying into the hype and trying every fad diet and weight loss program going before I finally wised up.

    All I ask from you and your readers is that you look beyond the health industry hype. They use emotive and urgent language such as ‘war’ and ‘epidemic’ to justify their funding and try to frighten people, but it isn’t a war (do you go around shooting fat people?) and it isn’t an epidemic (are fat people dropping dead in the streets all around you?). The problem, as you acknowledge, is the industrial food and pharma complex which has brainwashed us all into eating processed foods containing a cocktail of sugars, fats and chemicals instead of fresh, healthy foods. It’s in their interests for us all to eat ourselves into chronic ill health.

    Maybe we should start asking ourselves why we are all so time-poor that we can’t take the time to walk home from the train station? I’d suggest that property taxes and prices that make it impossible for many people to live anywhere near their place of work (and hence have a reasonable commuting time) have something to do with it. Now that’s something the planning lobby can do something about.

  8. At some point I read one of Geoffrey Blainey’s books, Black Kettle and Full Moon, which discussed the Australia of the 19th century.

    Blainey’s discussion of the typical Australian’s diet of the time was enlightening; the average diet was ridiculously calorie-laden by the standards of 21st century Australians, but obesity was far less prevalent back then.

    While other forms of physical labour did take up far more of the day than today, much of the difference in energy expenditure must have come from walking.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Indeed, they must’ve walked much more than we do. Most of the population lived in the country in the nineteenth century. All four of my grandparents were on the land and looking back at the family tree, the great majority of my forebears also worked the land. So they would’ve been milking, shearing, plowing, cooking, digging, fencing and countless other energy-intensive tasks in addition to walking.

  9. Oz says:

    For most people some active transport would be health benefitting. When the time budget allows why would one not choose to participate in a healthier transport activity? Obviously not everyone is concerned about the factors effecting health. There are many other life-shortening habits contributing to the number of preventable premature deaths in our community.
    For example, 17% of the population continue to smoke.

  10. Sounds like a verbose excuse for NOT walking or cycling anywhere….

    Well written, well argued, but misses the comparison between obesity and transport use in countries such as Holland and Switzerland. The same high-energy use food is available to them, but the have a lower rate of obesity because public transport and squeezing of cars forces them to walk or cycle more.

  11. […] *This article was originally published at The Melbourne Urbanist […]

  12. But heck

    I think we’re forgetting there is data which should inform the debate about proximity and transport and assist the naysayers who reckon PIA got it wrong.

    In a foray into the 2010 Local Government Area Statistical Profiles Modelling, GIS and Planning Products Unit Public version, DoH, 2011, I did some crunching. Follow this link or here to a range of health sites I think the evidence is there to prove the case that proximity to public transport increases walking and improves health, particularly for women.

    Although this data is indicative, it does reflect studies particularly from the States looking at the variables influencing walking distance in particular by James Sallis, Ester Cerin and Larry Frank And then there is Australian confirmation that the evidence is replicable here. Take Neighborhood Walkability and the Walking Behavior of Australian Adults (Owen, Cerin and Leslie et al) American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Volume 33, Number 5.

    Happy reading!

    • Alan Davies says:

      Thanks for the link. But note I’m not questioning whether or not there’s a correlation between proximity to public transport and walking, any more than I’d doubt there’s a positive correlation between depth of setback and the amount of walking from the front gate to the front door. The point at issue is whether exercise ought to be a primary objective of transport policy (or policy on set-backs come to think of it!)

      • But isn’t getting everyone into shared rather than personalised transport the end goal for emissions reduction? And surely this won’t happen if they don’t or will not walk the first leg. So if tailoring public transport policies to meet people’s perceptions of need & convenience increases patronage surely this is legitimate? And if in the meantime the transport system quite accidentally better meets the needs of the most disadvantaged including those who find walking whatever long distance difficult (less-abled) or impossible (too far, too difficult, takes too long, too many busy roads to cross, too unpleasant, too scarey, too unsafe) then surely reducing the distance between stops is providing an inclusive system built for old, young, abled & disabled alike?

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