Unfortunate news just came out of a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-funded report: Americans are losing the battle against obesity. This problem of growing obesity is related to many of our country’s greatest challenges. Luckily for us, there is a solution that can tackle obesity as well as many related difficulties simultaneously.
Sitting around in our cars, our cubicles, and on our couches is taking its toll. To paraphrase Trust for America’s Health director Jeff Levi: when our waistlines grow, so do our health care costs. The fact that two thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese has contributed significantly to the doubling in health premiums for workers over the last decade — fueling big increases in serious illnesses like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Habits that induce and perpetuate obesity don’t just affect health care costs. The same decision to drive instead of walk or bicycle increases the price of oil and gasoline, hurting all our checkbooks and threatening to make the dollar even weaker than it is today. Our addiction to oil for transportation makes the fuel our biggest contributor to global warming, even bigger than coal. And our drive to secure the flow of foreign oil from the Middle East has led us to spend trillions of dollars on military misadventures and undemocratic alliances throughout the region.
The Promise of Active Transportation
If instead of jumping in the car for short trips, we instead hop on our bicycles or walk – we could save precious dollars, feel better physically, and be good stewards to the natural ecosystems we depend on for clean air, clean water, and a stable climate.
Since changing the infrastructure of a huge country like ours takes time, I will first focus on the change possible over the next decade. Currently ~12% of Americans use active transportation — 9% walk, 1% bike, and 2% take the bus or train. An active transportation shift to 33% of commuters (moving 21% from their cars) by 2020 would lower our consumption of oil by ~2 million barrels of oil per day. This is definitely doable, as more than 50% of commuters in the Netherlands and Sweden enjoy active transportation commutes (and their obesity rates are less than half ours as a result).
Such a move would save Americans over $40 billion every year on their fuel bills (based on current prices above $55/barrel) that we could instead put into paying off our credit card debt and improve the quality of life in our communities. The reduced demand for oil would help keep a lid on gasoline prices for those longer trips to family and friends around holidays. It would also cut our dependence on Middle Eastern oil by more than two thirds. The move would send total US greenhouse gas emissions down ~5% in one fell swoop, getting us close to the 2020 goal passed by the US House of Representatives.
To make this transition to walkable, bikable communities possible, we must have an infrastructure shift to support the necessary sidewalks, bike lanes, and greenways. While some of us in our physical prime can ride through the busy streets of Manhattan or on the sides of country roads, a safer environment is necessary to make active transportation accessible to all Americans.
Greenways, usually paved pathways to facilitate a safe route for non-motorized vehicles and walkers, are already growing in communities throughout the country. And building this new infrastructure can help provide jobs for some of the millions out of work right now. The cost for greenway construction is less than a quarter of the cost of building new roads (at $500,000 or less vs. $2+ million per mile, estimates the Florida DOT) and they require fewer maintenance dollars. So a focus on greenways rather than roadways in future Transportation Bills can help lower current government budget deficits.
And greenways can even be used for long-distance travel as long as we close current gaps along major corridors. For instance, the emerging East Coast Greenway from Key West, Florida, all the way up to the Maine border with Canada needs the support of local, state and federal transportation officials to become a completed urban counterpart to the Appalachian Trail. Such corridors can attract tourism to connected communities and even increase the home prices of people who live alongside it.
Greenways Empower Fitness, Financial Well-being, and Green Travel
The clean energy revolution is often characterized by technological innovations in solar panels, wind turbines, and fuel efficient vehicles. But we can’t forget the great opportunity of utilizing the renewable energy in our muscles to help us travel from home to work and play. In fact, this transition to an active transportation system throughout the country can reduce our obesity rate, lower our health care and fuel costs, free us from our dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and help us achieve the greenhouse gas emissions our Earth so desperately needs to restore balance in our climate.
Let’s make it happen!