The behavioural economics of parkrun

By Prof Theodore Turocy 

Last week, Stoke Gifford Parish Council voted to institute a £1 per runner charge on the parkrun (http://www.parkrun.org.uk) event held at Little Stoke Park in Bristol, citing, among other factors, the maintenance costs imposed on the park by the 200 or more participants who run, jog, or walk 5km as part of the event each week. This item has been newsworthy, among other reasons, as national policy has an objective of encouraging health and fitness.  Some of these national initiatives are based on standard economic principles of subsidising to encourage certain types of activity, and taxing to discourage others.  For example, hosting the 2012 London Olympics was justified in part in the hope it would create a legacy of increased participation in sport, while the recent tax on drinks with a high sugar content is intended to help reduce excessive consumption of sugar, which can have serious long-term health consequences.  How, then, did we come to a situation where a local council is, in effect, proposing to tax an activity that policy at the national level would encourage?

parkrun

Runners at a parkrun event

I and my colleagues at UEA’s Centre for Behavioural and Experimental Social Science (CBESS, http://www.uea.ac.uk/cbess) and the ESRC Network for Integrated Behavioural Science (NIBS, http://www.behavioural-science.ac.uk) look at questions like these by combining insights from psychology, sociology, and other areas with economic theory to understand how people and groups come together and behave.  Although parkrun is a private organisation, its success can be linked to the same set of principles that underpin a new way of thinking about government policy that has been adopted in the UK in recent years: the “nudge.”  There is a large body of evidence that the way we act and choose is shaped in subtle but consistent ways by various cues. In personal health choices, for example, the way that healthy (e.g. fruits) and less healthy (e.g. sugary snacks) foods are arranged at a snack bar or canteen systematically affects which kind of food we are likely to choose. The UK government set up the “Nudge unit,” now the independent Behavioural Insights Team, to investigate ways in which to use such insights to effect public policy, often at a low up-front cost.

parkrun is a wildly successful nudge.  parkrun is a series of weekly, timed 5km events, which traces its origins to 2 October 2004, when 13 acquaintances met up on a Saturday morning at Bushy Park in London for a time trial. Last week (16 April 2016), 89,356 of people completed a 5km run, jog, or walk at one of the 396 events in the United Kingdom, which were organised with the support of 8,868 volunteers.

We can understand parkrun’s success by turning to the EAST framework for behaviour change developed by the Behavioural Insights Team. (http://www.behaviouralinsights.co.uk/publications/east-four-simple-ways-to-apply-behavioural-insights/).  Changes in the way we behave are far more likely to stick if the activity that is being suggested is Easy, Attractive, Social, and Timely (EAST).  The design of parkrun comes straight from this playbook.

  • Easy: There are no registration or participation fees to join in a parkrun. To get a recorded time, someone only needs to visit the parkrun site once to register, and download a barcode, which is scanned at the end of the run.
  • Attractive: parkrun events are held in parks or other similar open spaces, on traffic-free paths. A run, jog, or walk in the park always sounds like a good idea. Recognition is given to participants who have completed 50, 100, 250, or 500 runs, giving a target to aim for.
  • Social: parkrun is explicitly social, with the tagline “it’s a run, not a race.” Most events have a local cafe or catering truck where participants meet for coffee, snacks, and chat after the run. All organisation and marshalling on the day is done by volunteers.
  • Timely: Events are held on Saturday mornings at the same time every week – so Saturday is often referred to as “parkrunday.”

With this framework, I can now draw out likely consequences of imposing a per-participant cost on an event like parkrun.  Standard economic analysis already tells us that increasing the cost of something decreases the amount consumed. Behavioural economics tells us further implications.  We know that even small barriers are often enough to keep us from doing an intended activity. Among runners, it is sometimes said the hardest part of the run is fetching your trainers and lacing them up; this is why, for example, many runners who run first thing in the morning will leave their shoes and kit at their bedside the night before.  parkrun makes it as easy as possible to participate: bring your barcode, turn up, and run. Any financial cost borne by a participant – even if it were only 10p or 20p instead of a quid – adds an extra barrier to turning up. The effect will be greater for people for whom the habit of exercise is not yet deeply ingrained, who are exactly the people who likely benefit the most from parkrun.

A smaller, less-diverse group of participants undermines the social aspect of parkrun. People feel comfortable joining in when they see others participating with whom they identify. Without a broadly inclusive group, the attractiveness of the event collapses. While an event could then consider moving from a weekly to a less frequent (biweekly or monthly) schedule, this would weaken the timeliness of the event.  “Every Saturday” is much easier to remember and to put in one’s diary than “every third Saturday of the month.”  In short, charging participants at a parkrun does not help cover any cost incurred by the venue; it kills parkrun.

So, parkrun’s success is down to how well it has implemented the behaviour change playbook over the last 11.5 years. I think it is the envy of anyone hoping to design a nudge.  Behavioural economics suggests that many successful initiatives for encouraging participation in sport and physical activity are going to “look like” parkrun, in the sense that they will work hard to remove any barriers or frictions to getting started – including but not limited to financial costs – and that they will involve the participation of substantial numbers of people at one location at one time.

And that is how we arrived at Stoke Gifford’s decision. The attractiveness of “nudge-based” initiatives is that they often do not cost much up front to implement. While parkrun is a private initiative, it helps us understand what a successful government-led initiative might look like.  Perhaps because so many ideas for changing behaviour launch with hope and fanfare only to disappoint with a damp squib, we don’t think the cost implications of wild success all the way through. Many local councils and landowners have been very supportive of parkrun, including Norwich City Council at the events closest to us at UEA – thereby, in effect, providing a subsidy to encourage participation. But it is equally understandable that local councils, especially those finding themselves being asked to do more with less resources, would look on a successful parkrun event with an ambivalent mixture of community pride set against concerns about how to deal with the event’s implications on the hosting park.

The next stage in our national discussion of how to encourage healthy outcomes through participation in sport will be to think about how to get the incentives right not just at the start, but in the long term.  But, if it is because we have successful initiatives like parkrun encouraging engagement and participation, then this is a surely good problem for us to be having!

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13 thoughts on “The behavioural economics of parkrun

  1. Parkrun may be private, but the health benefits are derived directly by government. If 0.1% of the 100,000 participants avoid a serious health issue by improving their own state of being, that is 90 heart attacks / strokes / high BP that do not have to be funded by the state / NHS. With its silo thinking, local government (Stoke parish council) is distancing itself from national government, which would, if questioned, probably be all too pleased to know that it has saved literally millions, due to somebody else’s foresight. In that global picture, one gets the distinct impression that the aldermen in question have seen dollar signs – who wouldn’t jump at the chance of making 10,000 pounds a year for doing absolutely zero?

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  2. Thank you for this thought provoking article. I’m very interested in what motivates change in people, especially when it is related to improving their health. As you have said the fact that park run is free is one of the main reasons behind it’s success. I hope that no other parkruns catch onto charging.

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  3. Thought provoking indeed – these particular ‘economic’ arguments seem devoid of any equity perspective: Which social groups are more likely to be involved in park run type initiatives? as a lll economists would point out ‘nothing is free’ – if individuals don’t pay somebody else has to so if the parks are to be maintained the money has to come from somewhere – opportunity costs means of course that it won’t be available to fund other things. If participation in park run type initiatives are socially unequal (with more middle class people running) then what level of cross subsidy is there for Local Councils from low to middle income council tax payers if they choose to absorb the maintenance cost of these ‘collective’ behaviour change initiatives? What are the opportunity costs and are they more acceptable to those arguing that councils should absorb the maintenance costs deriving from 500 people running in local parks? Why should local football clubs (including those promoting football amongst young disadvantaged people) have to pay for the use private and public football pitches and not park run? Why has there been such an outcry from public health oriented people about the ‘tax’ on park run but relatively little comment on the ‘tax’ or cuts Local councils are having to impose on other ‘sports’ related activities as a result of the cuts in local budgets – or more importantly cuts in wider social determinants of health inequalities? Just some of the thoughts the article provoked for me.

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    • Football pitches require the grass to be cut and the pitches to be marked out etc. Parkrun courses don’t have that over head and many parkrun course use the existing paths which if tarmac take a lot of runners to wear out

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  4. Jennie – the comparison with other sports like football is flawed since they have dedicated area of the parks prepared specifically for them. They have it mowed and marked and goalposts are provided. They may also use dressing rooms. All a parkrun needs is the normal public access that any park user requires. Therefore the presence of a parkrun imposes no additional activity cost on the council. The only economic counter-argument would be that the presence of 200-300 runners every Saturday creates additional wear and tear on the fabric of the park. If this can be evidenced then many parkruns work with their host to provide support to maintain the site. As the report says the very nature of parks is a major part of why the event is so accessible. On that basis parkruns have a vested interest in the venue. In the case of Little Stoke several support options were proposed to the Parish Council but all were rejected. Interestingly one of the things that parkrun is seeking to do with its incomes from sponsors is to encourage more parkruns in socially deprived areas in order to share the benefits across the socio-economic groups.

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  5. its a good essay for laying out the various factors, now what would appear the natural conclusion would be a Thaler-esque extrapolation of the arithmetical data. That just means costing the headline benefits. Just as BE has proven the driving theory behind HMG’s auto enrolment pension policy, so the arithmetic is equally valid for the promotion of parkrun – its the nudge for couch potatoes.

    The Stoke Gifford arguments comparing usage require further consideration; SG does not have 500 runners, it is less than half that amount. SG has a functionary requirement to provide and maintain the park, and the costs are met by residents through council tax. The football users are paying for exclusive use of a pitch, with goals that can only be used for football, and the time & labour of linesmen to mark out the pitches.

    Parkrun head office staff are paid salaries – for that they organise the resources, procedures and training for all the volunteers to enable the events to be hosted, marketed and safely run within our local parishes. Head office enable SG and all other local councils to provide a free, safe, healthy social activity within their communities. The facilities jut have to be there, they are already paid for, and the incremental cost is too small to be calculated. The health benefits can be calculated.

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  6. I too participate in Norwich Parkrun: Saturday wil be my 100th run there, plus quite a few others around this country and in Ireland. I think it’s a wonderful institution and has got me back into running again after a break of many years. However I think the really useful insight behavioural economics might offer in this situation is not to look at why Parkrun is sucessful at nudging people towards healthy lifestyles, but why Stoke Gifford councillors (supported by at least some people in the local community according to council minutes) feel obliged to take the stance they have, and whether this is likely to be replicated elsewhere.

    It’s easy for us Parkrunners to become enveloped in a bubble of self righteousness, particularly if we’re buoyed up by the company of many hundereds of other runners and have our views reinforced by the prevailing public health messages. Nonetheless we are using a shared public space with the consent of the landowner (the Council) and the tacit agreement of other park users and the wider community. I don’t belive for a minute that Norwich City Council would continue to offer its support to Parkrun if there were to be a flood of complaints from local voters about the negative impact of the event.

    Parkruns can quickly become victims of their own success: when I ran at Ennis in County Clare last summer there were 29 of us and our impact on the area was minimal. Norwich regularly atttracts over 500 runners, plus the various families and supporters, which makes for a great atmosphere if you’re part of it, but can be resented if you’re not. I’m also a member of a croquet club in the same park and many of our members used to arrive at 9.30 on Saturdays for a morning’s play, but now have to wait until after 10 before they can find car parking. The group sailing model boats resented having us thundering past them until our route changed, and the people setting up football training for youngsters sometimes look on in despair as we march across their pitch to our start point. All of these activities had been happening for many years before Parkrun came along. Luckily for us the principal organiser of our run is a master of diplomacy who takes great care to communicate with other user groups in the park and accomodate their concerns as far as is possible: perhaps this doesn’t happen at every venue?

    Looked at objectively and individually the reasons Stoke Gifford is unhappy with Parkrun don’t seem particularly compelling.
    – Wear and tear to the paths caused by 300 pairs of feet once a week: really? I’m no civil engineer but this sounds unlikely.
    – People use the public toilets: yes: that’s what they’re there for isn’t it?
    – Congestion and car parking: probably the main gripe and undoubtedly an issue in what sounds like a small parish, but it’s only for 90 minutes twice a week (with the junior run on Sundays) and a compromise could surely be worked out with goodwill on both sides.
    – Insurance issues were raised in the Chairman’s TV interview, but ths sounds like a reworking of the classic ‘health and safety’ defence and not something that would stand up to scrutiny.
    – Lots of the people coming to the run aren’t from the local area: probably true, but would the residents of Stoke Gifford be happy to pay a charge to use a park in, say, Gloucester when they visited the city?
    – The football club pay, why shouldn’t Parkrun? But as others have noted, the council maintains piches, marks out lines and provides goals for the footballers: what kit parkrun needs they provide themselves.

    If a charge were levied it may pay for a bit of upkeep and perhaps extra cleaning in the toilets but wouldn’t directly affect the congestion and parking issues, and the mass invasion of their space which are probably the principal concerns of local people. Why then would a charge solve the problem? It’s a bit like the criticism levelled at cyclists by some motorists that they don’t pay ‘road tax’. Like public roads, public open space is provided free for all at point of use until (it would seem) that use goes beyond a certain point.

    It is perhaps a tendency (almost by definition) for a Parish Council to take a Parochial view and to seek to look after it’s own, but no Parish is completely self supporting: they all benefit from a contribution from general taxation (albeit much reduced under this government), and all taxpayers fund the NHS so an improvement in general health benefits all of us financially. Which takes me back to my opening point: can Behavioural Economics help us towards a better understanding of how to allocate shared resources in the public realm and explain the part that money plays in this debate compared ot other more intangible costs and benefits?

    I look forward to your next blog post Theodore!

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  7. So your council is going to chase every person who goes for a walk or run in one of their parks to pay them a pound each time? Don’t you pay rates in England so that councils can provide public spaces for you to use? Vote the council out and get new ones that are there for the public good.

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  8. Thank you all for taking the time to read and comment so thoughtfully. You collectively raise a number of other dimensions to the discussion, which the desire to be brief kept out of this post. For example, I chose to leave to one side the question of whether a parkrun event creates costs that are different from other park users (or similar to park users who pre-book facilities like pitches). Any sufficiently successful parkrun is going to create some costs, whether wear-and-tear on the park, or impact on other users; certainly, as noted, Norwich parkrun has had its tensions with the model boaters in the past. That’s a discussion that could take up a whole other (or several!) posts! The main insight of this analysis is that, if there are situations in which those costs are not negligible, we need to think about how to cover those costs in a way that does not undermine the behavioural incentives to get active and participate.

    Similarly, it is fair to raise questions about equity and fairness, which I do not delve into here. parkrun is inclusive; but, not everyone wants to run/jog/walk for their exercise. Further, even when a community is genuinely welcoming, someone from a social or economic group that is currently under-represented at an event might feel reluctant to turn out (or even to know about it in the first place). Within the scope of this post, the message is that parkrun works not only because of the effort of the volunteers and community, but because the parkrun model is based on sound behaviour-change principles that allow all that effort to bear fruit. Other successful initiatives are also likely to follow the EAST framework, although the specific way they do it will likely differ, based on the communities and activities involved. And when those initiatives are successful, they may face some of the same questions parkrun events have encountered at the (fortunately rare) situations like Little Stoke.

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  9. Pretty well spot on …. the trouble is that when something is so succesful it makes some people see the $’s rather than the value of it … If park run organisers were actually making money out it then I would agree on charging parkruns a fee .. but if they decide to charge , who will actually collect and take care of the financial side of it .. as a regular volunteer I, and probably hundreds of other volunteers would simply not participate any further in Parkrun ….

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  10. Reblogged this on Jographies and commented:
    A little late in sharing this, but to add to the recent discussion about parkrun and Stoke Gifford Council, here is a great piece about the behavioural economics of parkrun from Prof Theodore Turocy (School of Economics at University of East Anglia).

    There are many interesting angles on the matter in the article and comments, which provide much food for thought in thinking through how run-commuting may act as a similar ‘nudge’ as parkrun to increase physical activity levels and the barriers that face its continued growth.

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  11. I feel sorry for the local council. They are so short of cash that they have: instituted a 25p-a-go for kids on each and every item of playground apparatus; introduced a surcharge of £5 for groups of 5 or more people; and anyone walking more than one dog has to buy a commercial dog-walking licence at £3/month. On the positive side the council have their monthly social picnics in that park and there is ALWAYS PLENTY of room for them to put their towels down.

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