Rutgers Study on Active Transportation and Obesity

Earlier this year, I spent a few weeks backpacking through Europe with a good friend from college. From the time we landed in Switzerland, we relied completely on public transportation; specifically we walked and took trains. In fact, we spent every night sleeping on the trains as we traveled. We spent time in northern Italy, Sicily, Germany, Switzerland, Czech Republic, and The Netherlands. On our way back, we reflected on some of our observations including the stress level of people in each area versus U.S. cities, the variety of transportation options, and the minimal prevalence of obesity in general.

A few things became very clear in our time there. First, the U.S. has a real obesity problem. We spent all day walking through cities in Europe, and were struck by how healthy people looked in general. By the time we left, we guessed that we saw ten people, who were not tourists, who could justifiably be labeled ‘obese.’ Another thing we noticed was that the environment as a whole was less stressful. There were not horns blasting and people yelling, rather, there were people biking, walking, and waiting for trains, buses, and light railcars. The cars that were driving, with Italy as the exception, seemed to take a backseat to the other commuters in the city. This reaffirmed our already suspected conclusion; the United States has a transportation problem. This relationship between fewer cars, more transportation options, lower stress levels, and lower obesity rates seem too linked to be considered coincidence.

In a study conducted at Rutgers University, researchers analyze the relationship between obesity and active transportation. They define active transportation as the percentage of trips made by walking, bicycling, or the use of public transit. The study examines the regular trends of people living in Australia, Canada, the United States and countries throughout Europe and focuses on routine, “utilitarian” travel, excluding leisurely activity, and long distance infrequent trips (i.e. vacation).

The findings of the study show a dramatic difference between the use of active transportation in the United States, Canada, and Australia (countries heavily dependent on automobiles), and that of European countries. At one end of the spectrum, the United States use of active transportation was 8%, with an obesity rate of 34.3%. At the other end was Latvia, using active transportation 67% and with an obesity rate of 13.7%, second only to the Netherlands in lowest obesity rates. These correlations may not seem surprising but why is it that Europeans are so willing to walk, bicycle, and use public transit? The study attributes the increased use of active transportation to (page 795):

1. Compact, dense cities with mixed land uses that generate short trips;

notice cars stuck behind light rail train in Prague

Cars stuck behind light rail train in Prague

2. Restrictions on car use such as car-free zones, low speed limits, and prohibitions of through traffic;

3. Extensive, safe, and convenient facilities for walking and cycling;

4. Traffic calming of residential neighborhoods;

Venice- Just foot traffic and water taxis

Venice- Just foot traffic and water taxis

5. Coordination of public transit with walking and cycling to transit stations andstops, including bike parking, as well as safe sidewalks and bikeways;

6. Traffic regulations and enforcement policies that favor pedestrians andcyclists over motorists; and

7. High cost of owning and operating a car resulting from expensive driver licensing, high gasoline prices, and high taxes on car purchases.

In Prague

In Prague from left to right- sidewalk, bike lane, car lane, light rail tracks, car lane

When I returned from my backpacking trip, I drove home to Connecticut, loaded my bike in my car, and brought it back to the Lehigh Valley. I now use my bike often. The problem is, I only use it for exercise and leisurely rides through the park behind my apartment. If I were to try to bike to the grocery store or to go shopping near my apartment, I would be dealing with non-existent sidewalks and non-existent bike lanes, leaving me right in the middle of MacArthur Road traffic. Anyone who knows the Whitehall Mall area knows that this is not ideal for biking or walking and frankly, driving becomes an issue of self-preservation. Many of the criteria listed above are essential to creating walkability and attractive public transit options.

In a country where most people drive a quarter mile to drop a letter in the mailbox, it should be no surprise that obesity rates are higher. Is this really an individual decision based on laziness? Or, is it a systemic problem stemming from infrastructure design? If it is the latter, what is the next step?

Post any thoughts or similar experiences below.

Posted on October 12, 2009, in Health, Public Infrastructure, Transportation, Urbanism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Great post, very true. I actually will bike commute from the Northampton area to Center City Allentown a couple times a week. I have had to adjust my commute to traversing residential areas to avoid traffic. Most drivers are respectful, but I have gotten a few angry looks from drivers that couldn’t pass me due to oncoming traffic. Perhaps if enough bike commuters make traffic an issue for drivers we can see some change?

  2. This is a compelling analysis of transportation/obesity.

    Why do we ask as a hit – or – miss if someone has reliable transportation on job applications? Is reliable transportation a right or a privlege? You will find that this differs in america/europe.

    Other possible reasons…

    I’m guilty of it as well, but i never cared where my beef came from.

    As I hear, In europe if your chickens don’t have a field to run and grow… they will NOT make it to grocery stores. There’s a public awareness of health from the time the animal is birthed.

    In terms of the lehigh valley… There is no night-time public transportation. And taxi’s are like 14.00 per mile. Bars open later than safe transportation? please…

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