Friday, August 17, 2012

On obesity and modal share

I have read some news recently that on average every fifth American is obese. I can't find the link now but I remember that the worse situation was in the southern states (with Missouri in the lead) where nearly 1/4 of all citizens are severely overweight. And while California and the West Coast in general looked the best, it doesn't mean they can be used as an example for the rest of the world.

Riding my bike this morning I was passed by several "overweight" cars (as this is what SUVs are, essentially), with their drivers racing to work, and I started thinking - how is the obesity issue related to daily transportation?
Cars everywhere (Source: Google Images)

If you look at the Wikipedia page for modal share, you may get the right answer (Yes, the data is a few years old, but still relevant). Driving a car is by far the most common way of getting around in United States, ranging from 92% of all commuters in Indianapolis (their butts must be glued to driver seats) to 43% in Washington, D.C. The only exception is of course New York City, where drivers are only 29% of all traffic and most people (55%) choose public transportation. But this is not a surprise in a place like New York.

Bicycling and walking is pretty much non-existent, although here in Boston we like to walk quite a bit (14%) and on the other side of the continent in Portland, they like to bike a bit more than average (6%).

However, the obese southern and Midwestern states prefer to drive.

Now, if we take a look at the situation in Europe, these numbers are even more telling. The highest private car usage is in Italian and Spanish cities and at the same time their citizens do not ride their bicycles. Perhaps, they prefer scooters. While I surely heard several times about overweight Spaniards or Italians, I have never heard about any obesity problems in Denmark or Holland. It must be directly related since citizens of these countries like to move around by bicycles much more often than anywhere else. In Copenhagen more travel happens by bike than by car (36% vs. 26%)! In other places, where population density is very high, people prefer to walk (55% of all travel in Paris and 30% in Berlin).

Surely walking or cycling while running daily errands is not the solution to obesity, but it may be a solution - it definitely helps staying fit. I can think about my mother, who was visiting me in Boston several years ago, and while not obese, not even overweight, she lost weight to her complete surprise (I guess she was expecting to gain some on our "hamburger diet"). The reason for it was that during her month-long stay she did much, much more walking than usual, visiting all interesting places in Boston. Long miles walked daily, combined with a controlled diet made her lose quite a bit of weight and she went back to Poland happier and slimmer.

The less we stay sedentary the better for us. Too bad America gets mobile mainly by car. It became a victim of its vast area and urban development.

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