Americans Need to Drive Less, Walk More

by James A. Bacon

WEST PALM BEACH, FLA.–Something is very wrong with America’s health, Dr. Richard Jackson, professor of environmental health sciences at the University of California-Los Angeles, told the Congress for the New Urbanism today. Rates of depression, obesity and diabetes are soaring. “We’re looking at the first generation in American history that will have a shorter life span than their parents.”

There is no single villain behind the deterioration in public health. But from a big-picture perspective, the problem is easy to explain. Americans are eating more than they did 30 years ago, and they’re getting less exercise. And a major reason they’re getting less exercise can be traced to changes in the built environment. “The environment is rigged against the child and rigged against the doctor,” he said. “We have medicalized what is an environmental health challenge.”

Jackson was preaching to the converted. New Urbanists have long fought the auto-centric design of the American suburbs and preached the virtues of compact, walkable, mixed use communities. Originally, walkable communities were seen mainly as an antidote to traffic congestion, the high cost of automobile ownership and the erosion of community. But in recent years, New Urbanists have been touting the health advantages of urban design that make it practicable for people to walk and ride bicycles.

Jackson blasted the contribution of automobiles to mortality and illness at many levels. Automobile crashes are the number one cause of death for Americans between the ages of three and 33, he said. Air pollution from cars and trucks causes an ever larger number of deaths. Children living in communities with high levels of pollution have 3.3 times the risk of asthma than children living in communities with low levels. But the greatest health threat of all is the lack of physical exercise. Children enjoy little mobility in suburban communities. They cannot walk to school, visit their friends or engage in scheduled activities unless driven by an adult.

Children are out of shape, and obesity rates are surging, Jackson said. Only 37% of California kids can meet a fitness standard of running/walking a mile in 12 minutes. Two out of seven volunteers get rejected by the military because they don’t meet minimal fitness standards. By 2030, obesity rates for adults are projected to reach 42%.

Physicians have found they can’t treat obesity with medication, and counseling doesn’t seem to work. The environmental factors reinforcing over-eating and under-exercising are too strong. It may be possible to reduce caloric intake by such measures as taxing soft drinks, Jackson said, but Americans need to re-build their communities to get them out of cars and onto sidewalks and bicycles. The nation needs to “make physical activity a routine and integral part of life.”

Bacon’s bottom line: I don’t agree with all of Jackson’s prescriptions (like raising taxes on sugar), but there’s no denying that he’s diagnosed the problem. For what it’s worth, obesity seems to be a particular problem in Virginia. Hampton Roads is the 4th fattest region in the country, according to a recent Newsweek tally, and Richmond is the 2nd fattest! Holy moly! No wonder the Bon Secours Virginia Health System sponsored Jackson’s presentation.

As Jackson said, this is a “code blue” emergency. Obesity and the health complications arising from it, particularly hypertension and diabetes, will cost the health care system hundreds of billions of dollars that will cost even the healthy among us. Time to get cracking!

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16 responses to “Americans Need to Drive Less, Walk More”

  1. Darrell Avatar

    Here, this will fix it.

    Think that’s old school?

    Virginia Beach #9 fittest city in America. The rest of Hampton Roads must really be fat. Or someone isn’t telling the whole truth.

  2. larryg Avatar

    the interesting thing is that most folks never explicitly sought out walking or biking… as an activity. It just was part of our lifestyle.

    we did not explicitly choose to no longer bike and walk… it just seemed to fade away as we became much more isolated in our settlement patterns and auto-centric as the only real way to get around.

    We still make a big deal about walking and biking but now we need “facilities”.

    the KINDS of roads that we have – major arterials 4-6 lane are dangerous places for pedestrians and bikes because traffic is relentless and fast moving and even places with ped demand buttons make walkers/bikers wait long and then give them a tiny sliver of time to get across.

    We’ve chosen what makes cars convenient more so that explicitly choosing to degrade walking and biking but the effect is the same.

    If this is any doubt in what I am saying, I would challenge anyone to pick a spot about 3-5 miles from your home – a store or similar then try to chart out a path to get to it on foot or bike. Once you assume the ped/bike perspective you’ll recognize just how dangerous such activities can be in most places and certainly not a place we’d send kids to.

    Most kids now…ironically bike in the middle of subdivision streets never to venture anywhere else.

    even more ironic – we build mixed-use said to be places where we can live, work and shop but most of these places are tiny enclaves isolated by the same 4-6 lane busy streets.

    NoVa is especially this way…in my view…

    I mentioned on another thread how smaller and medium sized towns out west are attracting young people. One reason is the ability to bike to work.

    you see lots of bikes with lots of bike facilities and LOTS of young people using them.

    back East – bike paths are largely for “recreation”.

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    Great theory. Actual bunk but a great theory. You see … it’s those darn suburbs which limit personal activity. OK – what should we expect to see? Cities with a relatively small “core city” vs MSA population should be the least active. Meanwhile, small cities with the majority of the residents in densely packed urban locales should be the most active.

    What do we actually see? The exact opposite.

    The least active? Lexington, KY – Indianapolis, IN – Jackson, MS: hardly bastions of sprawling suburbia.

    The most active? Seattle, WA, SanFrancisco, CA, Oakland, CA, Washington, DC. All cities routinely criticized for extremes of suburban sprawl.

    I am also very interested in how Jim Bacon plans to charge the residents of Richmond their “user pays” tax for being America’s second fattest city. Nobody is holding a gun to their heads and forcing them to gulp down double cheeseburgers. If it’s fair to charge a “user pays” tax for congestion then isn’t it also fair to charge a “user pays” tax for cheeseburgers and cigarettes? Why should Northern Virginians be asked to subsidize the gluttonous lifestyles of Richmonders? Oh wait, I forgot …. user pays only counts when it’s the people in NoVa (and sometimes Tidewater) doing the paying.

    The single best thing that government can do is mandate nutritional disclosures at all restaurants. I was in the Seattle airport recently. Burger King has an outlet in the United terminal. There’s something about staring down a 1,200 calorie sandwich ahead of a 5 1/2 flight that gives one pause. Maybe that garden salad would suffice after all.

    1. All such city/metro rankings must be taken with a grain of salt — including the rankings that I cite in my posts. They generally look at one or two factors and ignore a lot of context.

      Jackson, a former environmental health director at the Centers for Disease Control, cited a number of studies to back up his argument that there’s a connection between walkability of the urban fabric and obesity. The government studies may have holes — many government studies do — but I’m guessing they are more methodologically rigorous than anything published by Men’s Health.

  4. larryg Avatar

    well.. there is a slight problem with the logic that DJ is using. You’d have to separate out the urbanized areas from the surrounding exurban areas to truly get relevant stats. Right now.. you’re essentially comparing different cities and claiming that somehow exurban sprawl is affecting the cities inhabitants and that’s worse than apples and oranges.. it’s cumquats and pineapples.


    1. Thank you, Larry. Good point.

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        Here’s a list of the healthiest counties in the United States. Guess what, Jimmy-boy? Fairfax County is the eighth healthiest of the 3,007 counties and county equivalents in the United States.

        Let’s see …

        1. Fairfax County is (according to certain denizens of Richmond) a typical, suburban sprawl, automobile centric county.

        2. Suburban sprawl is a huge health issue.

        3. Farifax County, with a sprawl population of over 1M, is the in the top 1/2 of 1% of counties from a health perspective.

        4. Fairfax County is joined by Arlington County as two of the 10 most healthy counties in the United States. The two are also the healthiest counties in Virginia.

        Both Fairfax and Arlington Counties are forever referenced as examples of auto-centric suburban sprawl.

        Jim Bacon and LarryG – living the fact-free lifestyle.

    2. DJRippert Avatar

      I am not the person making the affirmative argument that the automobile and the suburbs have catalyzed American obesity – Jim Bacon’s friend Richard Jackson is making that argument.

      Yet, there are substantial and measurable differences between one city and the next in the various “fattest cities” analyses.

      If, as Dr Jackson surmises, suburban sprawl is the big factor then the worst cities should have the worst sprawl. At least, there should be some correlation. But there isn’t. In fact, just the opposite.

      Here is the data from Jim Bacon’s study (which referenced Richmond as the second fattest city):

      Memphis, Richmond, San Antonio, Virginia Beach, Columbus, Louisville …

      Do these sound like the American cities with the greatest suburban sprawl?

      Horse crap. This guy is a croc. He has a political agenda against the suburbs and he’s damn well going to blame the suburbs for everything from heart disease to mad cow disease.

  5. Hydra Avatar

    Jackson blasted the contribution of automobiles to mortality and illness at many levels. Automobile crashes are the number one cause of death for Americans between the ages of three and 33, he said. Air pollution from …


    Classic case of one sided analysis. All costs and no benefits. How many people have been saved by riding in a car to the hospital? How many were able to make a healthy living because of the automobile, and squandered that opportuinity?

    It would take an awful lot of walking to work off the number of calories Americans eat. if there is ANYONE who owns and uses a car for most travel who is not overweight, then most of his analysis is proven false.

  6. Hydra Avatar

    Children enjoy little mobility in suburban communities. They cannot walk to school, visit their friends or engage in scheduled activities unless driven by an adult.


    Are you kidding? They cannot even walk to the school bus. And the reason is fear of crime. And that is n the “safe” suburbs. Fear of crime is much worse in urban areas, and while it might be possible to walk to school, it is also possible that you will never get there, as was the case in New York recently.

    And how is it that they lack mobility, when they get driven averywhere they choose to go? It is the urban children, trapped in their neighborhood that have no mobility. It is urban shildren living in grocery deserts that lack access, too.

    But in neither case are the conditions they live under an excuse for lack of exercise. that is a whole different problem form mobility and or access.

  7. Hydra Avatar

    a spot about 3-5 miles from your home



    Any spot 3 to 5 miles from my home is likely to be home to a groundhog or a fox, maybe a cow.

    Yet there are literally thousands of bicyclists here every weekend. Most of the bikes arrive on the top of cars. I’m pretty sure bikes waste more energy that way than they save.

  8. Hydra Avatar

    Re – one more tool to make density work, from the post on robotic parking.

    If you have to make density work, that is probably an indication you have a problem.

    Here is an example: draw a circle three miles around my home, print that out on a map and figure out how much is publicly owned: it might be less than one percent. But in many downtown areas, streets account for more then half the area, let alone parks and other public spaces needed to “make density work”.

  9. larryg Avatar

    I’m not convinced that there is any sprawl-related obesity differences between cities but I again point out that, for instance, Fairfax is not ‘sprawl’ in the same since that the exurban jurisdictions that ring Fairfax are.

    if “sprawl” really did have a cause and effect to obesity – you could actually how it with the obesity levels.. you’d have a sprawl index on one axis and the incidence of obesity on the other axis and you have a scatter chart with each dot being the “place” that had the obesity / sprawl attributes.

    what DJ is doing is swinging a hammer and essentially playing whack-a-mole….. apparently encouraged to do so by a popular men’s publication dealing in inane and likely meaningless statistics.

    On the other hand – a “sprawl” lifestyle does not mean you have no choice but to eat more than you should. How do we get that idea anyhow?

    you get fat when you eat more than you should…exercise plays a relatively minor role unless you do it for hours and you do not need to be out in the great outdoors to exercise anyhow… Fairfax and exurbia is awash with “gyms” these days… popular places to sweat and socialize…

    I know a cardiologist who runs 3-5 miles a day… and it don’t matter where he is – on a city grid or along a country road or a recreational trail.. he still does it… it’s not the’s the habit.

  10. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    “X Marks the Pedwalk” by Fritz Leiber

  11. how_it_works Avatar

    Based on what I’ve seen, Virginians think sidewalks are a needless expense.

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