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The Transportation Bill Could Slim Us Down

Investing beyond highways makes America healthier

March 28, 2004 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Among children, excercise is down and obesity is way up, thanks to both poor diets and a built environment that almost always discourages walking.

The Congressional sponsors of the “Cheeseburger Protection Act” are probably right about the obesity epidemic: We shouldn’t be suing fast food marketers.

Instead, we should prosecute the transportation engineers and suburban developers who have made it nearly impossible to walk in most neighborhoods built since World War II. Thanks largely to the shift to auto-only design, incidental daily exercise – the kind that melts fat and helps ward off high blood pressure without a trip to the gym – has dropped like a stone over the last 50 years. Certainly, if more of us could stroll to the store or bike safely to work, we could easily burn enough calories to offset the odd Super Slurp or Boffo Burger.

A Six-Year Recipe For More Sprawl?
But perhaps we’re being too hard on our friends in transportation and development, too. After all they’ve only done what Congress has paid them to do for half a century. Every few years lawmakers adopt a new transportation law that doles out billions to expand highways, while demanding very little accountability for performance or effects on cities and towns. Meanwhile, communities are literally left begging for money to make biking and walking safe and convenient, or for public transportation, which inevitably involves walking.

Now the massive, six-year, roughly $300 billion transportation spending law is up for reauthorization. The last two times this happened, in 1991 and 1998, Congress took a slight turn away from paving-at-any-cost to a more balanced, community-friendly approach. This time, Congress has an opportunity to support what has become a nationwide clamor for communities that encourage more walking and bicycling.

Riding in Cars Is Dangerous, and Not Just Because of Collisions 
And not a moment too soon. As the federal Centers for Disease Control reported earlier this month, 400,000 Americans died from lack of exercise and eating too much in 2000. There is every indication, said the health agency, that obesity will soon overtake smoking as the leading cause of preventable disease in the United States.

America’s auto-only lifestyle clearly has a role, as other academic research is beginning to show. An intensive study of Atlanta residents by Dr. Larry Frank, a professor in urban transportation systems at the University of British Columbia, showed that time spent in the car is among the strongest predictors of being overweight. Dr. Frank’s research found that men living in spread out or sprawling areas were heavier than those who lived in compact, walkable neighborhoods.

In the debate earlier this month, supporters of the House bill to prevent lawsuits against fast food chains stressed that diet is largely a matter of choice; people can simply decide not to eat calorie-laden foods. But on the issue of incidental, daily exercise, the same degree of choice simply is not there for vast swaths of urban and suburban America.

Save The Children, Encourage Walking
Among children, exercise is down and obesity is way up. But how many parents are going to choose to make their kids walk to school when doing so means crossing roaring arterials and taking circuitous routes on streets that don’t have sidewalks? Whether for adults or children, even walking from one shopping center to another is life threatening. And how many people can safely walk to a rail or bus station, even when public transit exists?

Other research shows the peril presented by our unwalkable landscape is real. American pedestrians are much more likely to die in accidents than their European counterparts: Three times more likely than German pedestrians and six times more likely than Dutch pedestrians. That is almost entirely because both of those governments have invested heavily in bike and pedestrian safety. As a result, the share of trips made on foot or by bike in Europe is several times that of the U.S., while death and injury rates are far lower.

A built environment in which people could walk more and drive less would be the equivalent of a broad spectrum antibiotic: It would help reduce obesity and high blood pressure, improve air quality, and reduce traffic deaths.

At the moment, though, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether Congress will come through for us this year. After drafting wildly inflated transportation bills, both houses are hacking away to come down to the President’s $275 billion proposal.

Congress at the very least must amply fund the newly proposed Safe Routes to School program and keep a provision now in the Senate version of the bill that requires spending money to reduce pedestrian and cyclist deaths. It should invest more in public transit. And from a policy perspective, federal funds should go only to build “complete streets,” those designed to safely accommodate cars, bikes, and pedestrians. And because experience shows that community input almost always leads to more neighborhood-friendly projects, Congress must resist any pressure to “streamline” the public out of the planning process.

As lawmakers negotiate the transportation bill they should keep in mind the invocation with which Representative Earl Blumenauer, their Democratic colleague from Oregon, often begins speeches: “Let’s have a moment of silence for all those Americans who are stuck in traffic on their way to the gym to ride the stationary bicycle.”

David Goldberg, a former member of the editorial board of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is the communications director for Smart Growth America. Reach Mr. Goldberg at dgoldberg@smartgrowthamerica.org.

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