Your city is making you sick – and in more ways than you might think

Jogging, good; San Francisco air pollution, bad. Image: Getty.

Your city is making you sick. Diesel fumes are contributing to cancer and alzheimers. Air pollution is causing 40,000 early deaths per year in the UK. And on Tuesday we learned, thanks to new data from Greenpeace, that children are at risk too, with 47,000 babies and children exposed to illegal levels of air pollution at nurseries near polluted roads.

All this has ramped up the pressure on the British government’s new air pollution strategy, to be published this month. It’s a case of third time lucky for the government, whose previous two strategies were thrown out by the High Court for failing to cut emissions soon enough. Theresa May has already indicated that the plan will include some kind of financial help for diesel drivers, possibly in the form of scrappage vouchers in cities where £20-a-day “toxin taxes” are introduced.

In responding to the airborne killers, the air pollution debate to date has focussed, quite narrowly, on getting older diesel vehicles off the road and moving to electric or gas-powered ones. But limiting ourselves to swapping the kind of cars we drive risks missing the bigger opportunity to tackle the myriad other ways cities are making us sick.

Urban ailments

Let’s start with obesity and heart disease. Most British cities encourage a sedentary lifestyle that involves driving to work, sitting at a desk, and driving home again, with many sitting for 9 hours a day. Walking is actually going down as a share of journeys, falling from 28 per cent to 24 per cent over the past 20 years. Cycling is just 2 per cent of journeys; in the Netherlands, it’s 26 per cent.

One of the main reasons cited in surveys as a barrier to walking and cycling is the physical environment. Our many sprawling, cul-de-sac-based estates make walking indirect, and therefore time consuming. Infrastructure is designed for drivers, with pedestrians accommodated on the side and cyclists at best an afterthought. Meanwhile, in the inner-city areas which actually are walkable, a profusion of fried-chicken shops stand ready to mainline fat into our arteries.

Then there’s our mental health. Badly designed streets, buildings and environments don’t just look oppressive: they have a knock-on effect on our wellbeing and ability to cope. People who live in cities have a 40 per cent increased risk of depression, a 20 per cent increased risk of anxiety and double the risk of schizophrenia. We also suffer from a lack of, or poorly designed green space: people living in less ‘green’ areas experience significantly higher levels of mental distress, while gym addicts report lower benefits to wellbeing compared to exercise in natural areas.

As for our social life, all that time spent commuting takes a toll, eating into time spent with family and friends. Things are particularly bad for people on low incomes – one in ten people commuting from outer London deliberately take a longer journey to work, usually by bus, to save money – but taking the bus or coach to work on a journey lasting more than 30 minutes has the biggest negative impact on personal well-being of all commutes.

Churchill is said to have once quipped “never let a good crisis go to waste”. Tackling sickness from air pollution is a prime opportunity to tackle these ills as well and create cities where people can keep active, feel well, and have good home and social lives, as Respublica proposed in our recent report “Air Necessities: Place-based approaches to a pollution crisis”.

Prevention is better than cure

To do so we need to rethink our approach to health, cities, and transport. For one thing, we need to join up transport investment with the creation of dense but green “transit-oriented communities” like Ebbsfleet, where access to transport can be planned-in from the beginning.

Investment in high-quality rapid transit then give existing commuters a good option to switch out of cars. This makes it politically feasible to reduce parking in city-centres, meaning more land available for more productive uses, commercial development and housing. Less parking means less journeys by car, freeing up road lanes to be given over to cycling, housing, or parks, as San Francisco plans to do.

We also need to think about the implications of the way we pay for our city transport. Are zonal tube fares which penalise those in cheaper housing areas and encourage people to cram into the inner zones to save money on travelcards really a good way of organising the city?

In terms of designing cities to be healthier, the NHS’s Healthy New Towns is already showing promise in designing health into housing, but we need to do something for existing towns too. That’s where there’s a lot to be learnt from the “suburban retrofit” movement in the US, whose plans to transform the car-centric suburbs of US metropolises include mixed-use communities in abandoned malls and apartment blocks instead of garage space.

None of this will necessarily come cheap, but there’s a solid rationale for business to get behind healthier cities. Releasing all this valuable land from parking for more efficient uses like housing, creative spaces and businesses increases its productivity – in the long term, paying for itself. And, perhaps, less sick days.

Tom Follett works on devolution policy at the think tank ResPublica.

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You’ve heard of trainspotters and planespotters. Now meet Britain’s growing army of busspotters

Some busspotters in action. Image: Damian Potter.

In the summer of 2014, with too much time on my hands and too little to do, I found myself in the middle of an incredibly active, 200+ person Facebook group. How I ended up here (record scratch, freeze frame) is a little too convoluted and stupid to explain – but what I found was a world that I a) could not have imagined nor b) had any clue even existed.

The group I tumbled into was what I now understand to be a very, very small example of a “busspotting” group – that is, a Facebook group full of dedicated bus enthusiasts which exists to share pictures of buses they see on the road. This group had members from all over the country, with a concentration on northern buses, and was predominantly filled with young, white men.

What I expected to see was a range over relatively interesting buses, holding some significance or another, that were tough to find in your average day-to-day life. This was, largely, not the case. What fascinated me was that the vast majority of the group was not focused on unique buses, new buses, historically significant buses, and so on – but simply on the average bus and or bus route you might take just to get around your city.

What was even more bizarre to me was that people from across the country were meeting up in small towns (Morpeth, Livingston, Stevenage) to take seemingly mundane bus rides to other equally small places (Washington, Gloucester, Grimsby). The busspotters would travel hours on end to meet at these locations simply to ride this bus, often for three or four hours, and experience a bus route they’d never been on before or one that they just particularly enjoyed.

Ooooh. Image: Damian Potter.

After a couple of weeks of silently watching and one semi-ironic post, I left the group. And, for the next three years, I gave barely a thought to bus enthusiasm, as no busspotter group/page/person crossed my path. Unlike similar enthusiasms like planespotting and trainspotting, it didn’t seem to me that busspotting had any significant following.

But, as is the way of these things, a weird thread on Twitter three summers later sparked my memory of my short time in this group. I wanted to see what busspotting was actually and about and if, in fact, it was still a thing.

So I spoke to Damian Potter, an admin on several popular busspotting groups, about what it’s like to be deep into the busspotting scene.

“I used to sit upstairs on double decker buses and 'drive' them, including the pedal movements!” Damian announced right off the bat, speaking of his childhood. “I've been driving coaches at home and abroad since I passed my PCV test in 1994. I've been driving for Transdev Harrogate and District Travel since 1998.”

Damian, as you might have gathered, has been a busspotter since his early youth. Now, at the age of 50, he manages four different busspotting Facebook groupsm, mostly based around the Harrogate area (Transdev Enthusiasts, The Harrogate Bus Company, iTransport Worldwide and Spotting Bus and Coach Spotters). Some of them have over a thousand members.

He also participates in busspotting IRL, travelling around the country participating in busspotting meet-ups and events and co-organising trips along different bus routes. When I asked him what busspotting was to him, he explained that it can manifest in different ways: some people focus on makes of bus and routes, other focus on particular bus companies (National Express is particularly popular). Of course, bus enthusiasm is not solely a British phenomenon, but busspotters can certainly be found in practically every corner of the UK.

“People tend to think that spotters hang around bus stations furtively, with a camera and some curly cheese sandwiches, but this isn't really the case,” Damian continued. That said, he also mentioned some particularly hardcore bus nuts who have been known to trespass on company premises to be the first to snap a picture of a new bus.

“They really do produce some brilliant pictures, though,” he added.

Although much of busspotting culture happens online, predominantly on Facebook, groups often have what are called ‘running days’ which involve meet ups having to do with particular routes. Damian mentioned one particularly popular day following the London Routemaster buses that happen periodically. Not only do these routes draw in enthusiasts, he noted, but also draw huge numbers of tourists who want to claim they’ve ridden on the original London buses.

“I reckon the general public miss the old Routemaster buses. There is only one 'heritage' route in London which still uses Routemaster buses and that's the 15 service between Trafalgar Square and Tower Hill.”

Despite this widespread interest in buses and bus history, though, busspotters often find themselves treated as the lesser of the motor enthusiasts. This became clear to me almost immediately when speaking to Damian, and continued to strike me throughout our conversation; without my saying anything sarcastic, malicious, or snarky, he became instantly defensive of his fellow enthusiasts and of his hobby.

When I asked him why he felt this immediate need to defend busspotting, he explained that people often ridicule busspotters and bus enthusiasm generally, arguing that bus drivers are the most common attackers. “However,” he noted, “if I bring a load of pictures into the canteen they're the first to crowd around to see bus pictures...”

Aaah. Image: Damian Potter.

Despite being perceived as an often-mocked hobby, bus enthusiasm is expanding rapidly, Damien claims. “The bus enthusiast culture is growing, with younger generations getting more involved.” Drawing in new, younger enthusiasts has become easier thanks to social media, as has creating real personal connections. Social media has made it easier for bus enthusiasm to not just stay afloat, but actually thrive over the last several years.

It’s so widespread, in fact, that a national competition is held every year in Blackpool to mark Bus Driver of the Year (Damian himself came in 34th out of 155 back in 2002). This event draws in everyone from the bus world – drivers, manufacturers, tour companies, and enthusiasts alike. Here is one of the many places where great friendships are forged and busspotters who’ve only known each other online can finally meet face-to-face. “Personally I have made some great friends through Facebook,” Damian told me. “I have even stayed over at a friend's house in London a couple of times.”

Busspotting may be less well-known than motor enthusiasms like planespotting and trainspotting, but that very well could change. Thanks to active social media groups and regular in-person meet-ups, people have been able to use busspotting forums as not only a way to find lifelong friends, but also spend more of their free time exploring their hobby with the people they’ve met through these groups and pages who share their enthusiasm. For all the flack it may receive, the future of busspotting looks bright.

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