Shutterstock

Our car-dependent lifestyle has led to a dramatic rise in obesity-related illnesses. But we can do something about it.

America is facing an alarming epidemic. In 1960, fewer than one in 10 American children were overweight or obese, but today, that number is one in four. Formerly very rare (and very serious) childhood diseases like Type 2 diabetes have become increasingly common.  

It's not just kids who are being affected: a quarter of adults are now obese, way up from one in 10 in 1990. That's contributing to soaring health costs – over $190 billion a year, or 20 percent of all health care spending, according to a recent Cornell University study. 

What's the cause? Some analysts point to the growing consumption of junk food and sedentary lifestyles, and they're certainly right. But there's also evidence of a close correspondence between obesity and unwalkable, car-dependent neighborhoods. People in these neighborhoods are likely to be more sedentary, heavier and less fit, a deadly combination that begins when we are young.

For those over 40, a little experiment is telling. In our talks, we often ask our audiences how many of them walked or biked to school. Most hands usually go up. Then we ask them how many of their kids, grandkids or friends' kids now walk or bike to school. Almost no hands go up. We have wrought a huge change in the lifestyles of our children, one that is taking a tragic toll. We chose to do it when we created unwalkable (and unbikable) suburban environments. No wonder our kids stay indoors, or worse, get lured into a drive-through lifestyle, with rafts of fast food and little activity.

Safe, walkable neighborhoods are not just an amenity, they're a matter of life or death. They create environments where we can live active, engaged lives. And more walking brings more social interaction, more time outdoors, more recreation, more smiles and more "life" in every sense. 

But in modern times, aren't we stuck with these car-dependent neighborhoods? No, we aren't. As the PBS series Designing Healthy Communities showed, there are plenty of good examples of neighborhoods that point the way. More walkable, transit-oriented suburban neighborhoods such as Oregon's Orenco Station prove that it's possible to offer places where people will choose to walk more. (At Orenco Station in 2002, 17 percent of residents reported walking to shopping 5 or more times a week. By 2007, that number was up to an amazing 50 percent.)

We argue that it's time to "retrofit the suburbs," adding living streets and centers for humanity – young and old, rich and poor – to formerly sprawling areas. These places are not just healthier, they offer a better quality of life, and if they have a mix of services and public transit, monthly transportation costs can be lower, too.

The idea is not to "take away people's yards," or any other choice. The idea is to provide more choices, in how to get around and what to do outdoors, and especially, more healthy choices. You might still live in your current suburban house, if you want, but find that you can now walk to a small town center nearby that has a bus or streetcar stop, a little park, and a market. As a result you can get a quart of milk without burning up a quart of gasoline. Along the way, you might see a neighbor, exchange some news, or bring the kids for a nice walk. And you might not just be improving your life: you could be saving it.

Photo credit: Condor 36/Shutterstock

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A photo-illustration of several big-box retail stores.
    Equity

    After the Retail Apocalypse, Prepare for the Property Tax Meltdown

    Big-box retailers nationwide are slashing their property taxes through a legal loophole known as "dark store theory." For the towns that rely on that revenue, this could be a disaster.

  2. Equity

    Housing Can’t Be Both Affordable and a Good Investment

    The two pillars of American housing policy are fundamentally at odds.

  3. A photo of protesters carrying anti-Amazon posters during a rally and press conference in NYC.
    Amazon HQ2

    Amazon’s HQ2 Decision Was Always About Transit

    In the end, New York’s MTA and D.C.’s Metro were the only transportation networks capable of handling such an influx of new residents. But both cities will have some work to do.

  4. A mural of the Statues of Liberty and an American flag on a barn in Iowa
    Equity

    The Growing Inequality Between America’s Superstar Cities, and the Rest

    A new Brookings study documents the growing economic divergence of America’s superstar cities from smaller urban and rural areas.

  5. A man wears a mask with the likeness of French president Emmanuel Macron as people take part in the nationwide "Yellow Vest" demonstrations, a symbol of a French drivers' protest against higher fuel prices, in Haulchin, France.
    Equity

    Why Drivers Are Leading a Protest Movement Across France

    The rapidly developing “Yellow Vest” movement took over streets and highways to oppose rising gas and diesel taxes. It might also be a proxy for frustrations about rising costs and falling living standards.