Walking and Biking: The Key to Reducing Risk of Obesity?
Obesity is an epidemic spreading from community to community across the United States. In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7%) are obese; while in 1997 the obesity rate among adults was at 19.4%. Childhood obesity is also on the rise. Since 1980, obesity prevalence among children and adolescents have almost tripled. In 2011, the CDC reports that approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2—19 years are obese. According to studies, obesity in both children and adults is not only a circumstance of eating unhealthy food, but also results from an inactive lifestyle.
Regular physical activity can reduce the risk for obesity and help people lead longer, healthy lives. Studies show that less than 10 percent of adults get the recommended 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise per day. Walking and bicycling to and from work, school and errands is one easy way to incorporate physical activity in your daily routine, with the additional benefit of reducing automobile use.
The obesity epidemic is complex and finding lasting strategies that reduce its spread involves participation from many sectors. Currently, communities across the United States are doing their part to encourage active lifestyles for their residents. Many communities are promoting walking and biking by adding well-marked bike lanes on major routes, and also repairing and extending the sidewalk network to accommodate pedestrians. Studies show that cities with more sidewalks and bike lanes have a lower rate of obesity than those without active transportation options.
Ada County, ID and Missoula, MT are two communities featured on Successful Communities Online Toolkit information exchange (SCOTie) that provide residents with an alternative transportation network to foster healthy and active lives.
Ada County, Idaho, located in southwest Idaho, is making it easier for residents to bicycle and shift the region away from auto-dependence. In 2009, Ada County adopted the Roadways to Bikeways Plan, which provides designated bicycle facilities to the 400,000 County residents and also commuters from the regions’ six cities, which include Boise, Eagle, Garden City, Kuna, Meridian, and Star. This plan proposes additional bike lanes and bike improvements on key roads throughout the County. These transportation investments provide Ada County with a complete biking network.
Since adoption of the plan, the Ada County Highway District (ACDH) has initiated a comprehensive bicycle way finding signage system, which will direct bicyclists to nearby points of interest that can be traveled to by selected bike routes. This project, along with ACHD’s commitment to include bicycle facilities in all new construction projects, offers County residents with safe options for commuting to work and school or for a simple leisurely ride.
The City of Missoula, located on the western border of Montana, sits in a valley within the northern Rocky Mountains. With a population of over 66,000, Missoula is home to the University of Montana. Although recognized as a bike friendly city since 2003 by the League of American Bicyclists, in August 2009, Missoula's City Council resolved to create a Complete Streets policy. A complete street is a road design concept that provides pedestrians, bicyclist, motorist and transit riders with safe and accommodating infrastructure.
The City recognized, through feedback from the local bike community, that their current policies lacked emphasis on safe transportation; the City knew changes needed to be made. Through adoption of Complete Streets principles, safe access for all transportation users is addressed regardless of age or ability. The resolution requires the following elements:
- Any new roadway must be designed to provide safety and convenience of all users along both the corridor and paths crossing the corridor;
- All road restoration or resurfacing projects must be reviewed for potential inclusion of complete street principles;
- Exceptions to incorporation of policy must be reviewed by the City Council; and
- Annual reports must be made showing progress.
Further, the policy includes efforts made by Public Works Department to review current design standards to make sure they are in line with Complete Street principles. The policy also outlines specific ordinances, resolutions, and programs that complement the complete streets vision. Contextual design must be applied so that the roadway meets the needs of the neighborhood.
Since the resolution was passed, there have been a number of projects, including many close to and surrounding the local university, which have supported Complete Street principles through the redesign of corridors during reconstruction. Although the policy has not been implemented through ordinance, the Cyclist and Pedestrian Committee of Missoula is already exploring funding opportunities such as working with Safe Routes to School programs in the area. Successful implementation of Complete Street principles requires commitment and long-term investment by the city, citizens and developers. However, the steps Missoula has taken set the foundation to provide the community with safe and healthier transportation options can lead to an overall decrease in automobile dependency and an increase in air quality.
Cities in the Intermountain West and beyond can use Ada County and Missoula as examples of communities that encourage active transportation. While the United States obesity epidemic extends outside of city and county jurisdiction, cities can encourage physical activity through transportation investments like bike lanes, sidewalk connections, and complete streets. If every resident chose to walk and bike for errands or to get to work, these changes would have a lasting effect on not only individual’s health, but also the greater health of the community.
The Successful Communities Online Toolkit information exchange (SCOTie) is a partnership of planning chapters and nonprofits working to build stronger, more resilient communities in the West.
Sustainable Cities Collective