The Hypermobile Society

A couple of weeks ago I heard the term 'hypermobility' used in a lecture, and I thought I'd look it up. Turns out it's the technical term for being double-jointed. But it's also used to describe a lifestyle that is characterised by extensive travel. In the UK, we are an increasingly hypermobile society.

In his essay 'Hypermobility: too much of a good thing', Professor John Adams notes that in 1950, the average Briton travelled about 5 miles a day. Now we travel an average of 30 miles a day. Our work, schools, friends, shops, and gyms are all in different places, and we make 1000 journeys a year back and forth between them all.

Hypermobility is a good thing. It's the right to go where we want, live where we want, to go on holiday to exotic locations. It gets us out of the cities to our suburban homes, or to our countryside manors. We live where we want to live, regardless of where we want to work. In my office in London, I have colleagues who live in Cambridge, Portsmouth, or even rural Northumberland, a stone's throw from the Scottish border. National boundaries needn't be the limits either. St Pancras International train station is walking distance from my apartment, and I can catch a train to Brussels in just under 2 hours. On a really bad day for traffic my modest bus commute can take almost that long. With housing a problem in Southern England, the Kent authorities are actively encouraging people to commute to London from France.

Hypermobility is also a bad thing. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that this is not a sustainable way to live. The emissions and pollution we know about, but John Adams has examined the social implications of hypermobility, and these are worth exploring. I want to run through a few. It's gloomy reading, but bear with it, because ultimately I think it's helpful. I'll say why at the end.

First, hypermobile people have less time. UK commutes are the longest in Europe, and the more educated you are, the further you are likely to travel. If you live in London, over the course of a year you may spend as long as an entire month getting back and forth between work and home. That has implications for families, relationships, and children in particular, as well as the fatigue and stress experienced by the commuters themselves. Relationships will suffer. Says Adams: "As we spread ourselves ever wider, we must spread ourselves thinner. If we spend more time interacting with people at a distance, we must spend less time with those closer to home."

Secondly, hypermobile people need more space. If you're going to drive, you need roads to drive on, places to park. More of the land needs to be paved over, shaped to the needs of the automobile. Or the airports - the controversy around Heathrow's proposed third runway is a case in point, where the needs of travellers would require the annexing of a vast portion of land, and an even bigger tranche of the already crowded airspace over West London. People will have to be moved, ecosystems will be destroyed.

Thirdly, because access to mobility is not evenly distributed, a hypermobile society is in danger of disenfranchising those too young, too old, or too poor to travel. "The poor are confined by their lack of mobility in prisons with invisible walls", says Adams. And while local shops, theatres, post offices, banks, and police stations close down to be replaced by out-of-town malls, leisure centres and supermarkets, those who do not drive are stripped of civic amenities.

Hypermobile societies are more dangerous, Adams suggests, and not just because there's more heavy machinery on the move. They're more dangerous because people won't know each other any more. Trust will be eroded as people work and live in different places, and so spend more time with strangers. Surveillance will increase. Crime rates will rise, areas of town will become no-go areas.

As a consequence, children will not be allowed out on their own. In 1971, 80% of 7-8 year olds in Britain were able to get to school unaccompanied, a figure that seems crazy now. Our expectations of childhood change. Where children used to have a degree of autonomy, being sent out to play, now they are driven between activities, or spend time indoors. According to Aida Edemariam, writing in the Guardian, childhood membership at gyms has risen 40% in three years. Virgin Active's gym classes for children includes playing tag, in a sanitised and commodified travesty of what we used to call play.

Despite the gym memberships, obesity is on the rise as people spend longer and longer travelling, but never walk anywhere. Town planning and architecture has kept pace with and finally run on ahead of car ownership. The US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention says "decades of uncontrolled suburban sprawl conceived around the motor car have left Americans unable to walk even if they wish to."

Who has time for this anymore?
Finally, Adams points out that a hypermobile society erodes democracy. With our time stretched so far, we have less influence than we used to in local government. Participation in local action groups, school boards and so on is in decline as we have no time. In parallel, the geographical scale of our lives requires a higher level of legislation. If you commute from France, your local town council simply will not be able to represent all your interests. So power moves upwards to larger institutions, to federal government, the EU, the IMF, and we become disengaged from politics.

As I said, it's gloomy reading, but ultimately I think this is good news for environmentalists. It's good news because we have to persuade people to cut their emissions and live within the earth's limits, and appealing to the threat of global warming isn't working. Images of swimming bears and melting ice are not enough. To really motivate people, they need to believe that lifestyle changes will benefit them personally. Here we see they do -- reducing your miles would have a wealth of positive effects.

If we could start to undo our hypermobile society, by applying new urbanist principles, adopting remote working, shopping local, trying to live nearer work, we wouldn't just have lower emissions and cleaner air. We'd have more time. Our relationships would be healthier, we'd have more time for spouses, children, friends. We'd know our neighbours, our neighbourhoods would be safer, and our kids could play outside. We'd be fitter, and we'd live longer. Our democracies would be stronger. There'd be less inequality between rich and poor, and those less able to travel wouldn't be at a disadvantage. I don't want to get too utopian about it all, but doesn't that sound like an easier sell?

Environmental and social sustainability are inextricably linked. There are hundreds of reasons why reducing our ecological footprint is a good idea, right across the board. Perhaps if people were more aware of the benefits, if we could run a more positive campaign, we'd see more action on lifestyle change.

For a good summary of hypermobility, see John Adams 'Hypermobility: too much of a good thing'. For more detail see the OECD report 'The Social Implications of Hypermobility' (PDF).

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  • Posted on Jan. 21, 2008. Listed in:

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