Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Real loneliness can do serious damage

with 4 comments


This is a piece about psychology. It highlights the problems caused by being alone. Human beings are social animals – that is the way we evolved. But thanks to greater mobility, family fission, and other social pressures more and more of us live alone. And this is not good for us. The British very early on in the Thatcher era identified one of the consequences of her disastrous policies. This is the woman who proclaimed “there is no such thing as society” and demand that the Social Science Research Council change its name. Her dogmatic approach to public transport (no subsidies from the taxpayer or cross subsidies between profitable and unprofitable routes) meant that bus services to rural locations and indeed, almost anywhere outside of peak periods became infrequent or simply vanished. This left many people who could not drive unable to access essential services like food shopping, or visiting family – or a doctor. The term “social isolation” entered the lexicon of those dealing with social problems – which Thatcher preferred to ignore.

The sentence which made me decide to blog about this article is

Cacioppo wants to encourage neighbours to come into contact with each other, by making cities more walkable.

Cacioppo is the neuroscientist who has shown that social pain is akin to physical pain.

It’s regular, chronic loneliness that does the serious damage: increased stress levels, higher blood pressure, disrupted sleep – all the way to accelerated dementia.

One the greatest challenges facing the BC government is the rapid rise of health care costs – and this is strongly correlated to the aging of the population. We already know that building roads increases health care costs. The BC government  even had the chutzpah to list this as an economic benefit of the South Fraser Perimeter Road. But those costs are simply the direct impacts of particulates and other common air contaminants. More traffic means more collisions, of course, but the government likes to ignore induced traffic. It also likes to ignore the impact of increasing car use on land use – which is perhaps one of its most pernicious aspects.  Places that are designed for cars do not meet people’s needs very well – though they do serve the corporate interests very well indeed. There is a great deal more profit to be made in a sprawling suburb, which is why there are so many of them. But the people there have, we know, higher rates of obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes – all strongly associated with a sedentary life style. Not that most cost benefit analyses of transportation projects in BC attempt to quantify those costs, even in the simple terms of the impact on the public purse.

In the view of people like Jan Gehl, it is not just walkability that is missing from our cities and suburbs. It is also the opportunity to sit down in public places – to linger and people watch, to have casual social interactions. In fact those interactions have always been the most important part of the local economy – that is the way that markets work and why, even in our IT age, they still are geographically centralized. But where we have no public spaces, only private space where we are allowed merely to remain for a brief interval while shopping or consuming other commercial services, we lose the single most important thing that we do as humans. Association.

By allowing private corporations to determine the nature of our gathering places, we have managed to reduce the demand on local taxpayers. But we have lost far more. Our mindless obsession with balance sheets and return on capital employed means we have lost the ability to understand what it means to be human. We also distrust economists and other analysts who attempt evaluate social costs – things that have a huge impact on us but have no easily discernible monetary price. But the decisions are still made – and the those who benefit loudly triumph the supposed success in terms of jobs or GDP – or some other simple statistic which ignores well being.

And it is not as if we were not aware of these effects. Artists and social commentators, writers and dramatists have all voiced concerns about the way we live now and its corrosive effects on the family and the human spirit. But these voices are also marginalised or ignored, because of the deliberate manipulation of the communications media by the same corporate interests. But even they cannot ignore forever the crisis in health care costs and its causes.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 15, 2009 at 7:45 am

4 Responses

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  1. Great post. I just wanted to take you up on one point though if I could.

    Quote: There is a great deal more profit to be made in a sprawling suburb …

    Has there been any research into the profitability of “smart growth” developments in North America vs car-oriented, surburban developments? If you are aware of any studies I would interested in reading more about it.

    Chris S

    December 15, 2009 at 10:13 am

  2. Much of the profit comes from converting land from other uses to development. This is, after all, almost cost free. A change in zoning is all it takes. So, simplistically. the more land you can convert the more you make. Yes, smart growth has a compelling case – see sites like or But even so developers and financial institutions seem wedded to what they know and understand

    Stephen Rees

    December 15, 2009 at 10:59 am

  3. What can be done to stop corporate control of our destiny, the unfriendly social trends and weakening democracy? Perhaps more people would live simpler and happier lives if others were doing so, but it is difficult to resist trends when friends and neighbors are going along.

    NEWS and entertainment broadcasting are almost totally dominated by private commercial broadcasting and they are in business for profit. They do not exist to improve society or to make their audiences healthier and happier. What are the chances of seeing on your local news a negative report on a local company’s wrong doings when the business is a regular advertiser on the station? Or will a network seek to expose a company’s bad ethic if it is a large advertiser or shareholder?

    And so we get biased reports, excessive advertising and what ever business chooses to dish out. Public broadcasting is so much more useful but lacks the corporate funding to take any kind of prominence in our daily lives. The chances for future positive social trends looks rather grim.

    There is public broadcasting with programs like Bill Moyers Journal on PBS that work for positive change. Notably in recent years numerous websites and blogs are appearing that are devoted to world issues and advocating change. They bring news and articles on poverty, the environment, corporate influence, human and consumer rights, government and corruption.

    We can talk about it to our friends, neighbors and on the net. It all helps Stephen.

  4. Unsurprisingly the tech giants like Goggle and AT&T continue to argue against net neutrality. They do not want to be forced to treat all internet traffic equally. They do not want messages not favourable to their business to receive equal attention.

    They want to maintain the status quo: corporate America in control of what the public sees and hears.

    They do not want millions following blogs like this one lest a significant number of people start questioning what they’ve been told and demand real change.


    December 15, 2009 at 10:39 pm

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