In Bicycling, Land Use, Public Health, Transportation, Transportation & Land Use, Walking

Gas prices, which have recently hit the $3 per gallon mark in some parts of New Jersey, are not what anyone wants to see, especially during economic hard times. But, according to some, there might be an upside to high gas prices: a skinnier, safer country.

In the 2009 book $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better, by Christopher Steiner, Mr. Steiner argues that as gas prices rise, it will affect our personal health and the health of our communities for the better:

Consider the following societal changes: people who own homes in far-off suburbs will soon realize that there’s no longer any market for their houses (reason: nobody wants to live too far away because it’s too expensive to commute to work). Telecommuting will begin to expand rapidly. Trains will become the mode of national transportation (as it used to be) as the price of flying becomes prohibitive. Families will begin to migrate southward as the price of heating northern homes in the winter is too pricey. Cheap everyday items that are comprised of plastic will go away because of the rising price to produce them (plastic is derived from oil). And this is just the beginning of a huge and overwhelming domino effect that our way of life will undergo in the years to come.

Mr. Steiner, citing University of North Carolina research, finds that for every long-term $1 increase in gas prices, the national obesity rate drops by 10 percent.

And public health officials are beginning to take note that the country’s most auto-dependent states seem to be hit hardest by the obesity epidemic. In a recent report, F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2010, the report’s authors agree that moving away from a reliance on the automobile is one of the components necessary in curbing obesity. The report’s recommendations include: passing legislation supporting non-motorized transportation, such as an expansion of the Safe Routes to School program or a national complete streets bill; building more safe pedestrian space and bike paths to encourage active transport; and supporting mixed-use, walkable, and transit-oriented development.

Folks at the federal level are taking note, too. First lady Michelle Obama’s Childhood Obesity Task Force calls for, among other things, transportation reform. In May 2010, the task force released a 124-page report recommending dozens of policy shifts in health care, community development, and transportation that it estimates can bring down obesity rates among kids by 5 percent over the next 20 years. The report discusses the link between non-motorized transportation, local land use, and children’s rate of physical exercise. Among the task force’s recommendations are an addition of “complete streets” design rules to the next long-term federal transportation bill and expanding the Safe Routes to School (SRtS) program to include high schools. As a standard to measure the success of its proposed policy shifts, the task force suggested aiming for a 50 percent increase in the share of children walking or biking to school over the next five years.

Even the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is starting to understand the transportation and public health connection. In a report released last April, the agency links the nation’s land use and infrastructure systems with chronic disease, obesity, and premature death. The report makes a number of detailed recommendations for ways our nation’s transportation policymakers can help improve public health, including:

  • Reduce injuries associated with motor vehicle crashes
  • Improve air quality
  • Expand public transportation
  • Promote active transportation
  • Encourage healthy community design
  • Design to minimize adverse health and safety consequences

The full report, and the detailed recommendations, can be found on the CDC’s website.

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