The Times, 26 January 2008


This week, the government announced a £372 million strategy to help reduce the number of obese and overweight adults. One suggestion is that people would receive financial incentives to lose weight – vouchers or other rewards (probably not a bun). This is a theory so demonstrably bonkers that it can only have come from the subconscious of some Junior Health Minister, who awoke one morning to a vision of a ‘Lose lbs, gain £s’ advertising slogan, and felt sure they were just an art collection away from becoming a Saatchi. There will also be compulsory cooking lessons in schools, just as soon as they can remember in which skip they dumped the kitchens, and even fruit-tasting sessions. For all those of us, presumably, who fear the banana, and have never quite built up the nerve to approach it.

Sadly, of course, to become thinner, we need to exorcise our modern ways, and channel our inner cave-men: eat less food and move more quickly, as though scouting for berries while fleeing an irate mammoth. But everything in our society is pointing us in the opposite direction. At my local gym, for example, they have escalators. To clarify, not lifts, for the wheelchair-bound-but-fit. Escalators, for the gym-bound-but-idle.

Even science isn’t on the side of the active: this week, three mathematicians published Walk Versus Wait: The Lazy Mathematician Wins, a paper suggesting that you should wait for a bus rather than walk. Their formula apparently proves that it isn’t worth walking unless your bus isn’t due for an hour, and you are travelling less than a kilometre. I think the sceptical reader might have a couple of quibbles with this. The first is that average walking speed is 4-5 kilometres per hour, which means it takes between 12 and 15 minutes to walk a kilometre. So if you had just missed a bus, the next one would only have to be in 16 minutes, not an hour, for it to be quicker to walk. The second quibble is this: just how lazy would you have to be to take a bus to travel less than a kilometre? That is a tiny distance. Unless you were standing on a blind bend, or were blind, you’d be able to see your destination. And over which roads was this formula tested? I suspect the open roads of the Midwest, where bus and cow live in peaceful harmony. Not, for example, Gower St in central London, where a 73 can routinely take days, or even weeks to travel one kilometre. If you didn’t want to walk, I would go so far as to suggest that it would be quicker to shoot yourself in each foot and crawl than take the bus.

Not that I am against the bus, you understand. I like ‘em. They sometimes get you somewhere slightly faster than if you walked, and they carry your shopping without moaning. But the point of a walk, surely, isn’t whether it’s a few minutes quicker than a bus, or not. The point of a walk is a walk. Plus, if you live in a city, walking is the only way to guarantee you’ll be on time. Engineering works, traffic jams and breakdowns (other than emotional) can’t affect your speed.

There are downsides to a walk, obviously, particularly in winter. On Monday, I tried to go into town to meet my dad, and eventually had to turn back, realising that the roads were so flooded I might actually drown, and that my umbrella had taken on a role which was largely decorative. Two days later, the insides of my shoes were still clammy and cold, and I felt like I was stepping into a cave. But then, everything is worse when it rains, apart, possibly, from drought.

And in a week when the Home Secretary turned out to be too chicken to walk home in the dark, does the bus have an edge safety-wise? In the last three months, the BBC has reported that crime on buses has soared in Gloucestershire, halved in Manchester, and fallen in London, although passengers remain fearful. I’m no statistician, but I like to think this means Manchester has the fittest criminals in the country.

Certainly bus crime must be low in Bradford, where a sweet Goth couple made the news this week, after being refused entry onto a bus, because one of them was wearing a dog lead – an odd choice, certainly, but pretty harmless. The bus operator, Arriva, said that other passengers might be put a risk if the bus braked sharply. In a way that, presumably, they wouldn’t be if they were, say, coming down the stairs and the bus braked sharply. Poor Goths: I suppose they had to go for a walk. So that dog lead must have come in handy after all.