We live in a world where public authorities are keen to point out the benefits of their policies, but not the costs. Take the coronavirus lockdown, for instance. Scientific government advisors were eager to point out that they were following the best of the available evidence and that everything they were doing was kosher. And, if your only metric is how many people die directly from COVID-19, then they probably have the right idea. Making sure that people stay in their homes for all but the essentials is probably the way to prevent transmission.
But when it comes to the evidence from the economy, they seem to be turning a blind eye. Now that business has been shut down for months, how many people’s health will suffer as a result of a lack of income in the future? What effect will a recession have on people’s ability to pay for healthcare? What medical breakthroughs now won’t happen because of scientific policymakers’ actions to shut down labs? It doesn’t seem like these issues have been thoroughly thought through.
The idea of walking to work follows a similar argument. The immediate benefits are apparent, such as a healthier body and more energy. But there are costs. Big costs.
Injuries incurred while walking on the street are not uncommon. In fact, per mile traveled, pedestrians are at a much higher risk than regular drivers.
If you read popular media or newspaper articles, though, they will tell you that there are practically no downsides to walking to work. It is something that we should all do for the sake of our bodies and the environment. It makes us feel healthier, less stressed, and more alert. And it could even extend our lives.
What’s missing, though, from all these analyses is a recognition that nothing in life is free. Walking might bring a host of benefits, but it also delivers seldom-discussed costs. It simply isn’t safe walking miles through busy cities, surrounded by metal objects moving at high speeds. Our bodies are fleshy bags of mostly water. They’re not capable of surviving impacts of that nature without substantial damage.
Policymakers and people pushing walking, therefore, need to adopt a more candid approach. It’s not enough to merely repeat the mantra that “more people should walk to work.” We’re all aware of the benefits. But there are millions of people who live and work in busy cities where the risk of serious injury is high.
The notion that we should cycle is also something that has come up time and again. But once more, this form of commuting involves serious dangers – perhaps even more than walking. When you cycle, you have to frequently get into the stream of traffic and hope for the best. Cars buffet you from all sides. And there’s always a risk that a driver won’t see you.
What we need is a sensible approach to this problem – one where both the benefits and the risks are discussed in the public forum.