BBC BLOGS - Magazine Monitor
« Previous | Main | Next »

Green shoots and leaves

16:09 UK time, Wednesday, 19 August 2009

How do you measure a green shoot?

On Monday, Michael Blastland started the Magazine's search for alternative ways of measuring what's going on in the economy.

The idea is simple - what everyday things could be signs of the wider state of the nation. The amount of popcorn sold, for instance, or how much junk mail is delivered. We want to draw up a list of several different indexes and plan to measure them over the coming weeks to see if they are as useful as conventional measures of how the economy is doing.

Based on your suggestions so far, in the Monitor we will be discussing various options, and invite you to make further suggestions on how the proposals could be refined and measured.

cyclists_in_convoy226pa.jpgFirst, let's think about transport. Lots of you have suggested this as being ripe for measurement.

Tim Devonshire from Peterborough suggests counting bikes in the office cycle shed. "No matter how many people claim it is for the health benefits, it is an amusing coincidence that our 10% pay cut preceded a week when every cycle shed in our office was suddenly full," he says.
And Philip Nash of London is on the same lines. "The number of people on bikes on the way to work in the morning - though of course this index would have to control for the weather, advertising campaigns and the Tour de France being on TV," he says, all of which are good points and might mean cycles are, in this sense, a non-starter.

So how about taxis?

Charles Macdonald, also of London, says from time to time he asks drivers of black cabs how long it takes to make £100. "Taxis are a discretionary expense. It is always possible to find a cheaper but less convenient means. Two years ago it took between four and six hours on a weekday. Ten months ago it took a day-and-a-half. Now a cabbie can take in just over £100 on a week day. These figures are only approximate based on a sample (some taxi drivers take offense when asked), but they show not only expenditure, but confidence."

Interesting thoughts - but perhaps a bit too difficult to measure reliably.

Rudolf Hucker says having worked in the West End of London for 20 years, an "infallible barometer" of economic health is the ease or not of getting a parking space in Berkeley Square. If only he'd kept records we might be on to something.

Tony Leigh proposes something a bit simpler, which feels bit like Reggie Perrin. "How about the time taken to commute to work?" he asks. "My drive used to take me 25 minutes, now it's below 15. Fewer people working = fewer people driving to work = less congestion on roads. And vice versa."
Evis T of Menai Bridge has a variant on it - "The car pool index? - and Russell James, Wirral, proposes counting the number of cars on the M6 Toll motorway. "At present if you drive along it, you feel like you've just before part of a film depicting the world after the human race had vanished," he says.

Peter K, London, takes the debate onto the tracks. "How easy is it to get a seat on the train? When there's a recession, there are fewer people commuting or going on business. When there's a boom, there's obviously more. One effect that is a bit more subtle is during a house-price boom, then the number of long-distance commuters goes up, as people try and find cheaper places to live."

bunchofflowers_bbc.jpgAngela, London, takes a different tack. "What about sales of flowers at petrol stations? I think sales go up during times of recession and high stress, being a relatively cheap way of saying 'sorry' or 'thank you' or 'I've lost my job' when you don't have much dosh."

So where does that leave us? We may be on to something good here, but it needs to be a quite specific thing we're looking for, yet not obviously over-influenced by other factors. Any further thoughts via the Comments field please.


  • Comment number 1.

    the queue outside 'jamies italian' in kingston

  • Comment number 2.

    American trend forecaster Gereld Celente has been doing this for years, using all sorts of unlikely indicators and has been accurate with many organisations subscribing to his Trends Research Institute journal. His predictions for the coming years though are not looking good he has identified indicators of economic collapse as opposed to green shoots. In America now sales of ammunition and long life foods are soaring, what does that tell you about public confidence? Also I would love to see an Horizon episode looking into the phenomena of 'Web Bots' programs which work like search engines designed to rake the internet looking for repetition of particular phrases. Originally designed to predict market moves, they are now coming up with an alarming amount of doom and gloom coming our way in the near future. The theory being that subconsciously all people are intuitively picking up on micro trends personal to their own daily experiences then when they blog, tweet or communicate in any way online they unknowingly and very subtly pass on their concerns which in turn get read by and ring true in others who in turn subconsciously pick up on the vibe magnifying the feeling that something is afoot. Along comes the web bots acting like high tech divination sniffing out this collective unease. We are being lied to, things cant go on like this, the globalisation game is up, everybody deep down knows it but they want to stay in the dream instead of accepting the inevitable nightmare our consumerism has created. Historically war and or disease follow.

  • Comment number 3.

    Ask meter readers how many daytime calls get an answer.

    More people are at home because they're unemployed or short on funds.

  • Comment number 4.

    A drop in domestic gas and electricity consumption, seasonally adjusted. When more people are at home more because of recession their domestic bills will inevitably rise no matter how hard they try. A light on here, a kettle boiled there, TV on all the time, more bloggers on the BBC website. All these activities will reduce, and household bills also as a consequence of this, when more householders return to work.

  • Comment number 5.

    There'll be less cars about in August 'cos everyone's on holiday and the schools are off...

  • Comment number 6.

    1) It is impossible to sustain continued growth, so the capitalist model is doomed.
    2) During the 4th phase of any civilisation the weight of bureaucracy strangles and kills it. You only have to look around at our western society to realise that this is happening now. We have more pen-pushers than people actually doing something.

    Collapse of our civilisation is inevitable.

  • Comment number 7.

    The M6 toll is a non starter I'm afraid. I cycle over it every day to work (10% paycuts notwithstanding). As far as I can see, it's got more to do with the cost rising in 6 years from £2 to £4.70 each way plus whether there's major congestion on the M6 (or if the M6 has been closed completely). Far better to take note of how busy Birmingham's city centre car parks are (London's are outrageously expensive and not affordable to the common man).

  • Comment number 8.

    High street coffee sales may be a good one. Another discretionary expense, I calculated I would save over £700pa by foregoing my morning latte and pastry. I could then use these funds to purchase a bicycle and save even more on travel expenses... at this rate I'll be a millionaire by the end of the year!

  • Comment number 9.

    Flying regularly between Jersey, London and beyond, it has been noted by myself and friends that over the past year there has been a marked reduction in holding times when arriving over the major airports, Heathrow and Gatwick, with many flights actually getting a direct approach. This has also been mirrored across the pond at the likes of Chicago. Assuming this is down to a reduction in the overall number of flights it will be interesting to see, but not necessarily experience, how an economic recovery, or lack of, might continue to influence flight times.

  • Comment number 10.

    How about sales of ready-made meals? And sales of red wine? Or sales of "finest" or luxury items as opposed to sales of "value" items? sales of sky tv? budget spent on hairdressers or beauticians? There's surely an endless list of things which we all forego in times of economic insecurity... Personally, I've given up TV, to the shock and horror of friends! (Me, I quite like the chance to do other more rewarding stuff...)

  • Comment number 11.

    Near us there is an Environment Agency office block and recently we had a talk from one of its staff. When I asked him what percentage of the staff travelled to work on bikes, or public transport he wasn't able to answer - the answer should have been zero. He made all sorts of excuses such as "We're not on a bus route" (they are), we were moved from the centre of town (oh, dear). Perhaps a case of "Do as I say, not as I do" but that applies to most government departments and Quangoes - or am I being too cynical?

  • Comment number 12.

    The comment by Curiousman is not my experience. I work regularly with the Environment Agency. I cannot remember any of the offices which I visited not having a well used cycle shed and even for off site meetings many of the people attending travelled by cycle or public transport. The whole ethos within the Agancy is to encourage people to take the green options.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.