Why Fresh Thinking beats Ideologues

Ideologues are often very light on actual solutions to problems – just strict and often pointless adherence to ideology. I was reminded of this upon reading a Herald opinion piece arguing for a sugar tax to fight the obesity epidemic and then reading the lengthy stream of fierce comments below it. Everybody was arguing either a) in favour of a tax, b) against a tax and for personal responsibility, and c) more education/information about nutrition. The first two positions (and the third to an extent) are rooted heavily in political ideology. All, in my mind, fail to address the issue. A tax is another burden on the poor who are also often the fattest. Any behavioural economics book will tell you personal responsibility isn’t a solution, and education? Please, we already know KFC is bad for us…

My point is that the debate around issues like obesity is so often ruined by needless adherence to ideology that prevent us from seeing viable solutions. My background is in urban planning, and rather than the tired old “to tax or not to tax” debate, I feel we should be asking questions like “why do we force physical inactivity by laying our cities out in a way that makes walking anywhere impossible”, and “why do we penalise people for being physically active by treating pedestrians like crap with street design?”. There’s a whole other side to the issue that ideology just doesn’t touch upon.

We’re an increasingly fat country because we’re physically inactive. We have urban forms that are stupidly laid out so that walking anywhere is virtually impossible. My local shops are about 1km away, but the nonsensical street layout turns this into a loopy 30 minute walk. Then there’s the issue of design and amenity. Try walking along the main roads of Albany or Botany Downs. It’s unpleasant, even hostile. My point is that there’s an easy solution to obesity – making it easier to fit physical activity into your everyday life. Unfortunately, we’re intent on making it impossible to get anywhere without a car.

Lots of planning documents babble on about the need to promote walking and cycling, but the planning rules do nothing to make this happen. Planning rules control virtually everything about a new subdivision – the size and density of the buildings, the amount of parking and open space you need, in some cases even the colours you’re allowed to use. And yet there’s no rule early in the planning process that forces developers to have connectivity in their street layouts – nothing to ensure that a street actually connects to something and isn’t just a pointless cul-de-sac that reinforces automobile dependence. There’s umpteen rules for the amount of roadspace to give to cars, yet no rules around the size and standard of footpaths. None of this stuff would be hard to implement, and it would make physical activity a much more natural part of one’s life.

Not doing these things comes at a huge cost. The costs of obesity to the health system are well documented. The cost of auto dependence are also quite well documented – forcing low income families to own multiple cars for any sense of mobility is a much bigger burden than any sugar tax, yet nobody ever picks up on that in the media. The majority of trips are sub-3km errands, yet we force people to purchase, run, maintain and register a car just to do them. Finally, reinforcing auto dependence has a huge cost to developers – all that parking they legally have to provide isn’t built on free land…

This is just an example of a fresh perspective on a ‘done to death’ issue. Hopefully it’s something different in a pond that’s been fished out by ideologues. Fresh thinking can only be a good thing when the  quality of debate on an issue boils down to “to tax or not to tax”…

Oh, and an aside…one of my favourite blogs has come to an end. The author of the excellent AKT Auckland Trains blog has joined the brain drain to Australia. That blog has been influential and highly informative over the last few years, and it’s sad to see it go.  Below is a link to the final post – plenty to think about in the second half of that post for anybody passionate about NZ and politics.



About Liam W

Urbanist, transport nerd, general curmudgeon.

Posted on December 28, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Just because somebody has easier access to their workplaces or shops does not mean they will use it. I live in a small town and most people use there cars to get from place to place, even though the furthest distances can be walked in 15 minutes or so.

    • I’ll leave this one for Liam.

      Thanks for the comment, Ross.


    • Of course not – it’s a matter of choice – but that’s sort of the point – there is no choice in alot of our current urban development. Go to the older parts of Auckland – places like Ponsonby or Devonport – and you notice a hell of a lot more people walking because they are attractive to walk in. I personally drive to places like Devonport just to go for a walk – nuts isn’t it?

      I don’t pretend to have solved the obesity problem (despite the tone of my post suggesting otherwise). The point of this was to illustrate an alternative perspective on an issue that I think has sadly become a rather stale ‘tax vs personal responsibilty’ debate.

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