CHICAGO — Maybe that old notion about running for the bus isn’t such a bad idea after all.
Short walks or jogs to bus stops and train stations may seem like small potatoes in the fight against obesity, but they can add up and make a difference. Consider that the American Public Transportation Association has announced the highest transit ridership in 57 years — 10.7 billion trips in 2013.
Ridership is up 37.2 percent since 1995, outpacing population growth, which is up 20.3 percent, and vehicle miles traveled, which are up 22.7 percent.
“The most docile activity is sitting behind the wheel of a car. If you can change that by just a few minutes a day, the impact can be quite significant,” researcher Sheldon H. Jacobson of the University of Illinois told me.
He should know. Ten years ago, when the obesity epidemic was mostly under the radar, Jacobson was looking at the many consequences of Americans’ expanding girth and trying to figure out how to reverse-engineer them.
Along with Laura A. McLay of Virginia Commonwealth University, Jacobson was behind the 2006 study that calculated the amount of extra automobile fuel consumed between 1960 and 2002 that could be attributed to higher average passenger weights: 938 million gallons. The researchers figured that more than 39 million gallons of fuel were consumed annually for each additional pound of average passenger weight.
Late last month, Jacobson published research in the journal Preventive Medicine hypothesizing that reducing daily automobile travel by one mile per driver and walking a mile instead would be as effective as reducing caloric intake by 100 calories per day. The hitch: walking that mile per day would trim a person down after six years, while an actual 100-calorie reduction would take only three years (not to mention a hefty dose of willpower) to reach the same point.
Jacobson did not want to speculate on whether the increase in transit might, in six years, produce a corresponding drop in obesity rates, although he did say he believes that “the recent drops and leveling of obesity also correlate with the drop in driving over the past six or so years.”
But one thing is pretty obvious. We have clearly not thought enough about the potential for using community infrastructure as a tool to impact long-term effects on weight. We should.
For instance, according to the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, the poor population in America’s suburbs is growing faster than anywhere else in the country, surging 64 percent in the past decade. The number of suburban poor is growing at more than twice the rate of the urban poor population.
By 2011, there were 3 million more poor people living in the suburbs of the nation’s major metropolitan areas than in their big cities. And, unfortunately, the exemplary public transportation cities that the APTA highlighted seemed to reflect a strictly urban phenomenon.
The suburbs are infamous for a couple of things: lack of regionwide, interrelated networks of public transportation, few sidewalks, county roads designed without pedestrians in mind and myriad decentralized and often overlapping units of government. Combine these with poverty’s malnutrition and food insufficiency and you have a recipe for poor health.
“We were looking at the whole country, so we can’t be sure about urban versus suburban because the data just isn’t there,” Jacobson said. “But when we share information like this, people say, ‘Oh that makes perfect sense — I was slim and then I moved to the suburbs and gained 30 pounds.’ Adding extra time at the gym is great, but when you’re driving 30-45 minutes each way to take your kids to the soccer field, there’s something wrong.”
Regionwide planning for coordinated public transportation options and incentives to make communities more walkable could make a huge impact on suburban economic growth, employment and even obesity if policymakers were just connecting the right dots. Maybe there is some hope for this — notably, bus ridership increased by 3.8 percent in cities with a population of below 100,000, according to the APTA.
Until policymakers understand the opportunities in investing in pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, suburban leaders will continue to plan and build transportation projects that keep commuters trapped in their cars on traffic-clogged roads.
If an extra 10 minutes of walking a day can have a “massive” change in our country’s obesity epidemic, we need more sidewalks, trains and buses.