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?
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!