Everyone has an opinion about obesity in America–from parents to cable-news talking heads to health officials. They repeatedly point to familiar culprits: processed junk food, sugary sodas, video games, an increase in the number office jobs, and, of course, portion size.
However, there’s one variable that is rarely mentioned in the conversation, and it’s all around us.
During the 1950s and 1960s middle class white families moved from more diverse urban areas to the suburbs and exurbs. It was called “white flight,” and it helped shape the suburban landscapes that are so familiar today. Communities started to favor branching, “hierarchical” layouts instead of the organic and grid systems of older cities.
It resulted in homogenous communities with houses surrounded by enormous pristine lawns. Neighborhoods and subdivisions bunched together via cul-de-sacs. Soon, a car was a necessity to access the basic amenities of the community.
I grew up in one of these suburbs.
I never thought of it as an especially bad place to grow up. There was little crime and any danger was primarily of my own making. There were good schools. There were ponds to skate on during the winter and baseball fields to play on during the summer. It has only occurred to me as an adult how difficult it would be to live there without a car.
Taking a trip on foot to the nearest grocery store from my childhood home wouldn’t be impossible, but it would be time-consuming, difficult, and tiring. The same goes for many other businesses and services. My reexamination illustrated something.
Norman Garrick and Wesley Marshall are assistant professors of engineering at the Universities of Connecticut and Colorado and they believe the issue is worth examining. Marshall told The Atlantic in extreme cases, “Older, denser, connected cities were killing three times fewer people than sparser, tree-like cities on an annual basis.”
Naturally, they assumed people walk and bike more in dense cities that are easy to navigate. However, Garrick, Marshall, and Daniel Piatkowski, of Savannah State University, wanted to delve into street networks and health.
Their study, which looked at 24 California cities, reported that cities with compact street networks (i.e., more intersections) were healthier. These communities showed lower levels of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
An earlier study by the RAND Corporation showed similar results. Even after controlling for factors such as age, economic status, and race researchers found that people in areas with a high degree of suburban sprawl were more likely to have health problems such as high blood pressure, arthritis, and breathing difficulties.
Roland Sturm, a RAND Health economist, said of the study, “We know from previous studies that suburban sprawl reduces the time people spend walking and increases the time they spend sitting in cars, and that is associated with higher obesity rates. This probably plays an important role in the health effects we observe.”
However, not everyone is convinced that cities lead to more walking and biking.
Timothy Wojan and Karen Hamrick, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, authored a new study focusing on “active commuters,” those who either walk or bike to work. They examined the prevalence of these active commuters in more compact cities versus sprawling suburbs. Controlling for age, gender, race, ethnicity, education, and occupation, Wojan and Hamrick ran a regression analysis of the link between active commuting and fitness in each place.
Their results ran contrary to the other studies. Wojan and Hamrick found that urban residents weren’t significantly more active than suburban residents. They posit that this is because only a fraction of people in both places actually walk or ride a bike to work. That being said, they did find a correlation between active commuters and decreased body mass index (BMI). The few people that do walk or bike to work have markedly lower BMIs, which could indicate better overall health.
According to data from the United State Census Bureau, the number of people who bike to work increased from 488,000 in 2000 to 786,000 in 2012. That equates to roughly a 60 percent increase. The increase might seem impressive, but cyclists still make up only 0.6 of all commuters. Census Bureau data also showed that 2.8 percent of the population walks to work. That adds up to 3.4 percent of the population who either walk or bike to work.
In Denmark, 24 percent of people commute by bike every day and 90 percent of people own a bike. Furthermore, the country spends around $10 million a year on biking infrastructure, and only 29 percent of people own cars. Although there might not be a direct correlation, it’s probably worth noting that obesity rates in countries like the Netherlands and Denmark are significantly lower than in the U.S.
Granted, these are countries with a fraction of the population of the U.S., and they are also home to old, compact cities. Still, there seems to be an enthusiasm toward biking that is missing here. Biking advocates are hopeful for the future, though.
“In recent years, many communities have taken steps to support more transportation options, such as bicycling and walking,” Brian McKenzie, a Census Bureau sociologist said. “For example, many cities have invested in bike share programs, bike lanes and more pedestrian-friendly streets.”
It’s clear that more of us need to be walking and biking to work in this country. The health benefits are too obvious to ignore at this point. The only way that will happen is with strong encouragement and support of policy changes (bike lanes, traffic calming measures, etc.) at a local level.
So next time you walk out the door, ask yourself: Do I have to drive?