Ministry says walk's silly, we'd rather take a cab

When it comes to walking the talk, it seems Ministry of Health staff would rather just take a cab.

Last year ministry staff took more than 1000 taxi rides for less than $10 - at the same time as officially advocating walking as a way to increase New Zealand's low levels of physical activity.

In the 2012-13 financial year, staff based in Wellington charged taxpayers for 8645 taxi trips with 1076 of those for journeys costing less than $10. Another 1942 taxis were taken for $10 to $15.

The Star-Times took a $10 taxi in central Auckland to see how far it would take us. We travelled 1.7km. The return journey on foot, at a leisurely stroll, took just over 16 minutes.

The Ministry of Health's physical activity guidelines suggest people should be active every day in every way possible, doing at least 30 minutes of physical activity five days a week.

The ministry's website says you should walk whenever you can. "Remember: Even small increases in physical activity can produce measurable health benefits," the site says.

A ministry survey of the health of New Zealanders found only 54 per cent of adults were meeting the prescribed 150 minutes of physical activity a week.

"If cab rides are being used to transport people for a very short journey like 1km to 2km, then people should walk those. We should be encouraging people to do that," said Dr Ralph Maddison, associate professor of population health at the University of Auckland.

It is the role of the ministry and health academics to lead by example in living active healthy lives, and everybody should be substituting a short period of motorised transport with more active forms, Maddison said.

"The Ministry of Health is our leading health agency . . . in an ideal world it is great if they could set that example as well, because that is part of their mandate to promote physical activity. We should be walking the talk as researchers, we should be substituting short journeys in cabs or cars, for walking or cycling," he said.

The ministry takes very seriously both its role in supporting healthy activity by New Zealanders, and its careful use of public funds, according to chief financial officer, Mike McCarthy.

"The ministry has a policy of encouraging physical activity and walking where it is practical. The ministry's guidelines for taxi use clearly state . . . taxis may be used when travelling, where it is the most cost-effective option," said McCarthy.

The ministry has internal advice for staff on nutrition and physical activity that includes walking short trips, and using stairs rather than lifts.

The taxis were an unacceptable use of taxpayer money by a ministry responsible for promoting physical activity, according to the Taxpayers' Union. "It is sadly ironic that while the Ministry of Health spends taxpayer money to promote active living, officials are getting taxis a few hundred metres down the road," said Jordan Williams, executive director of the Taxpayers' Union.

The ministry has reduced its total taxi spending by 40 per cent compared with 2007-8. Taxis are used for short distances when weather, disabilities, or health issues make them the most suitable form of transport.

Sunday Star Times