Making The Case
It Doesn't Have to Be This Way
By designing our communities to prioritize the rapid movement of automobiles, we have created places where it is difficult—even dangerous—for people to walk or bicycle. Creating a more balanced transportation system through cost-effective investments in active transportation systems can simultaneously result in healthier places and healthier people.
In 1956, President Eisenhower launched the largest public works program in American history: the creation of the interstate highway system. While this program has contributed greatly to America’s prosperity, it has also produced unintended consequences.
As a result of a singular focus on automobiles, we have created a transportation “monoculture,” with driving often the only safe and convenient way to get from Point A to Point B. And as walking and biking have become more marginalized and difficult, driving has become second nature, so embedded in our culture and our behavior that we do it without thinking.
Half of the trips Americans take are within range of a 20-minute bike ride, with more than one-fourth within range of a 20-minute walk. Yet the vast majority of even these short trips are taken by car. Unintended consequences of a one-dimensional transportation system that leaves us little choice but to drive include:
- Unhealthy places with a declining quality of life due to air pollution, the loss of green space and local businesses, and growing traffic congestion and safety hazards; and
- Unhealthy people who are walking and biking less—consuming more calories than they burn—and contributing to a growing obesity crisis that is placing a costly burden on our nation’s health care system.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Creating a more balanced transportation system through cost-effective investments in active transportation systems can simultaneously result in healthy places and healthy people.
The Case for Active Transportation: Healthy Places
Whether a place is a small town, urban or suburban, increased public investment in active transportation is an essential ingredient in creating an economically healthy, vibrant 21st century community.
In Post-World War II America, many people left compact city neighborhoods—which often came to be viewed as crowded and dirty—in pursuit of a new American Dream in freshly minted suburban communities. These new developments, spurred by new roads and cheap gasoline, offered affordable homes, quiet neighborhoods and ready access to green space.
But in the ensuing decades—with successive waves of outward development—this auto-dependent lifestyle has lost its luster for many. Quality of life in the outer rings of our metropolitan regions has suffered due to increases in air pollution, loss of green space, $4-per-gallon gasoline and hours wasted sitting in traffic.
As a result, we are now witnessing a dramatic change in consumer housing preferences that is reversing trends that began in the post-war era. The millennials, and their baby boomer parents, are flocking to more compact places where they can walk or bike to work, to shops and to entertainment.
In the wake of the 2008 housing bust, this change in consumer preference is rapidly redefining real estate markets in our metropolitan regions. Demand for housing in walkable, bikeable neighborhoods with a high quality of life is outstripping supply, causing real estate values to rise in places that offer such amenities, while remaining stagnant in those that don’t. These changing preferences are also reflected in efforts to retrofit traditional suburban places to include “town centers” that are more pedestrian and bicycle friendly.
These recent changes in real estate markets also have major implications for labor markets, and we are in the midst of a seismic shift in societal preferences regarding the nature of where we live. A community seeking new corporate investment to create jobs enjoys a major competitive advantage if it can demonstrate that it is a “talent magnet” that can attract a highly educated workforce seeking to live in a place that offers the opportunity for a healthy, active lifestyle.
The Case for Active Transportation: Healthy People
Two-thirds of American adults, and nearly one-third of children, are now considered overweight or obese, with obesity-related health care costs now estimated at $160 billion per year. Investments in active transportation networks will help to combat the obesity epidemic by making it easier to build routine physical activity into our daily lives.
The building of the interstate highway system between 1956 and 1991 contributed to a steady decline in walking and biking as our communities were designed around the automobile. The resulting lack of transportation choices continues to contribute to troubling levels of physical inactivity that are a key factor in the rise of many chronic diseases and America’s obesity epidemic.
In response to this crisis, the U.S. Surgeon General has recommended that American adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week.
But that’s easier said than done. It has become an unfortunate cliché that increasingly people have to drive to a gym to ride a stationary bicycle because they can’t walk or bike in their own neighborhood.
We can solve this.
Through cost-effective investments, we can build out the neglected part of our transportation networks by creating “active transportation systems” that connect homes, workplaces, schools, shops and recreation. For pennies on the dollar, we can create seamless networks of trails, sidewalks and cycle tracks that can give all Americans the choice of mobility without driving, especially when connected to public transportation.
In short, we can tackle the obesity epidemic by creating safe routes to everywhere. We can give people the opportunity to meet the Surgeon General’s recommendation by making it much easier to build routine physical activity into our daily lives. Where these investments have been made, they have shifted at least a small percentage of short trips from cars to walking and biking, paying for themselves many times over in reduced travel, greater well-being, and increased economic activity.