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Adding it all up: the effect of accumulation

I stared down the table full of cheese, sausage, bread, wine and desserts. Fat, carbs, alcohol, gluten, sugar - crap! This is all bad for me. How many articles have I read that say to avoid these foods?  I thought, well, just one more piece of sausage won't hurt me, will it? And sure, just one more glass of wine - it's really no big deal, is it?

Here's the thing - I'm right!

Those isolated choices really are no big deal. (Insert phrase here qualifying that I'm not a doctor) Yes, there are piles of studies that can show me the health benefits (or not) of the food on that plate. Yes, a diet full of fatty food and alcohol is probably not a good choice. But like my mom always says, "everything's fine in moderation." An occasional indulgence is fine. What we seem to always forget - it's the accumulative effect of many, many meals or decisions like this that are the problem. Those studies? Check out the frequency and size of the servings that they use to determine healthiness or unhealthiness.

The key is to understand the effect of accumulation.

Choices that are repeated over many months or years are a better basis for decisions than isolated, one-off examples.

If I eat the diet pictured above every day for a year, we likely know the results. If I have a bottle of wine every day for a year, my body will react accordingly. Add this up to five years, ten years or more, and the results can become dramatic. 

Good habits and choices also work the same way.

One workout alone isn't going to make you fit, nor will two in a week. A solid month of working out or running will give you results. A dedicated year? Now you'll really see the impact. For all of you promoting any one particular workout approach - sorry, but I don't buy it. ANY approach that gets you active several days a week will show results. One program may be better at one aspect and worse at another, but the key is the cumulative effect over time by staying dedicated.

I wrote about this a bit in my book, Why I Walk (which you can pre-order here). From the chapter on Health:

Beyond the daily impact that comes from calories burned, there’s also the cumulative effect of all that physical activity that is much harder to quantify directly. Using our bodies more regularly helps our overall fitness, including our cardiovascular health, our immune system, the bones, joints and muscles in our bodies, and has spin-off emotional and mental health benefits. Regular exercise of any kind is good for this, but the low-impact nature of walking has been shown to be better than many alternatives. Many different health organizations, including the American Heart Association, recognize this and recommend a minimum of thirty minutes of walking per day, five times per week. The following infographic shows the benefits.

http://www.mindyourselfchicago.com/walk-your-way-to-better-health-infographic/

And here's the part where I connect all of this to this blog's topic: cities, planning and urban design. First, let's look at the practice and then the culture.

Something we don't keep in mind enough with planning and design is the impact of accumulation. One bad decision or bad building is rarely something that kills a place. Every really great street can handle an ugly building or two. But how about five or seven? Or ten? Now, you have something that fundamentally reshapes a place from good to lousy. 

Even with the imperfect science that is land use and planning we see this constantly. It's almost always the case that not any one instance of something (or even a few) is a problem. It's rather when there's an accumulation; a critical mass. Whether it's t-shirt shops, banks, bars, vacation rentals, you name it. Each one in and of itself is no problem. But any one of them when accumulated can actually destroy a place, or at least fundamentally change it. Whether you ascribe to a more laissez-faire approach to planning or not, this is reality.

I've often talked about this in presentations when it comes to rural subdivisions and exurban living as one example. When there's a few houses on 1, 3 or 5 acre lots, it's really no big deal. It presents a choice for someone that wants the lifestyle, and it's inexpensive to serve from the local government's standpoint. But what about when it grows to become dozens or hundreds of lots? Now we have to start to analyze the problems it creates, such as traffic, roads, infrastructure provision and more. The issues become much more complex.

This is all to say - it's another reason we need planning, planners and yes, even government oversight. It's not a perfect science, and I doubt it ever can be, but it's critical to balance long-term needs and issues.

Finally, I can't resist to also talk about how the effect of accumulation impacts the culture. In this respect, I'll solely look at the car culture. We often debate why driving is declining and why more and more people seem to be choosing to walk and bike. One reason I maintain: people are just getting sick of being tied to cars, and realizing the joys of other ways of life.

Why is that? Again, accumulation plays a huge role.

There's nothing inherently wrong with cars, or even "evil" about them. They're just a tool - sometimes awesome, sometimes terrible. How we use them is our own choice.

As the car culture evolved in the US, it went from a place of rarity (and romance) to one of necessity and ubiquity. Those car commercials are great for getting us excited, but by now we all know the reality. Most of our time in a car is not on the open road - it's spent sitting in traffic, worrying about accidents and looking for parking. None of those are particularly pleasant experiences.

The accumulation of millions and millions of cars has changed our fundamental relationship with them. That accumulation has become destructive, or at least for many it's tipped over into something negative into something positive. It's impacted our behavior and our finances in ways that we're questioning. Again from my book:

While the owner who drives a car fifteen thousand miles per year might be frugal and stretch the car for another five years past the car loan payoff, the owner who drives five thousand miles per year could conceivably have it payment-free for ten or fifteen more years. This is where the big savings really kick in. With much-reduced driving, you can still own a car, and own it without a payment for a very long period of time.

When I look at these numbers I see a few key advantages to lower car mileage. First, there’s the obvious benefit of lower monthly costs, as I outlined in the previous section. Second, the savings allow you to squirrel away a small amount of money each month (perhaps $50) to allocate towards eventually replacing the car. That money doesn’t add up to much if you only drive a car for a year or two beyond the end of the loan, but if you have the car for five, seven or ten years after the loan, that small amount will add up to a substantial sum toward a new vehicle. And of course, paying more up front means a substantially reduced monthly payment for the new car.

This is what economists call a virtuous circle. Walking more and driving less keeps paying you back more and more over time.

It often takes many, many years for something to accumulate to the point of being an obvious positive or negative. That's why change is slow at first, and then accelerates. It's why the "time value of money" is such an important concept to understand for investing. Putting away a few bucks every week seems like nothing for quite a few years. And then you notice, and notice in a big way.

Whether good or bad, all our choices have this time-induced impact. So enjoy that slice of bacon or piece of pie. Revel in a delicious cocktail. Even those occasional "bad" things are fine for you. While you're at it: walk it off afterwards instead of driving. Build some good habits to go with the bad ones. Just remember not to let the bad habits accumulate and stay true to the good ones. You'll see the benefits, in time.

Happy Thursday

Recommended Reads: Money makes the world go 'round

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