Monday, August 23, 2010

Buy them a health club membership

Freakonomics points us to yet another study that shows how the design of neighborhoods can contribute to weight loss. I am, of course, skeptical. Weight loss, I am told is not so easy.

But lets' accept these results (reported in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine) and ask "at what cost"? The case study involves the Lynx light-rail operating in Charlotte NC. In earlier posts I had written that these systems are likely to be cost-ineffective. The data that Paige Elise Kolesar and I recently assembled show that Lynx runs an annual operating deficit of almost $8 million. Account for capital costs (which transit agencies often ignore) and the annual deficit is almost $46 million. Add non-user benefits (as per Ian Parry and Ken Small's calculations; American Economic Review of June 2009) and the deficit goes down to $45 million per year.

Lynx only attracts about 2.26 million boardings per year. If these are round-trips and users board Lynx 300 times a year, we only have 3,750 weight loss beneficiaries. If society loses $45 million a year even after non-user benefits are taken into account, the estimated weight losses cost us $12,000 per beneficiary per year.

Cynics started doing the math many years ago and found that buying rail transit users a car would be far cheaper. But that would never fly with the smart set. So consider the 2010 update which suggests that buying them a bus pass plus health club membership is the way to go. The various "cash-strapped" governments would save money.