Last week, on the subway to Downtown and LADOT headquarters, I read an article in the New York Times by columnist Frank Bruni entitled “…And Love Handles for All” which got me thinking about the connection between urban planning and public health. Bruni’s article discussed “The Weight of a Nation”, a new book coming out which argues that America’s obesity epidemic is not a factor of individual gluttony but the effectiveness of our fat-friendly food system. “Weight” argues that we’re over saturated with “densely caloric and all too convenient food” that we’re biologically hardwired to consume.
One aspect that Bruni’s article failed to mention was that lack of exercise is a huge contributing factor to our obesity problem. This isn’t a new idea, but the article’s discussion of structural impacts and their effect on public health got me thinking. While lack of exercise is usually attributed to be an individual problem, urban planning has a huge implicit impact on our exercise habits. When viewed in this context the obesity problem that “Weight of a Nation” discusses has a much wider scope.
Los Angeles is emblematic of the American Modernist city, which emphasizes roads and highways in its transportation paradigm. The decentralized urban formula that Southern California created was perfected in areas like the South which were developed after World War Two. These regions, coincidentally or not, are also the most obese areas of the country. While it would take a great deal of research to concretely prove this point, take a look at the two maps above. The map on top charts bicycle commuting while the map below tracks obesity rates state by state. It’s amazing, the correlation is uncanny. The most obese states are also the least likely to have high bicycle commute mode shares. If I switched the titles of these maps, many would be none the wiser. Mississippi and Arkansas, the two states with the lowest bicycle commuting (0.08% and 0.06% respectively) are also the most obese (34.5% and 32.3% respectively).
Let me offer a personal anecdote to really hit this point home. I studied abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark which is one of the most bike friendly cities in the world. The Danish obesity rate is at 9.5% whereas America’s is 30.6%, and I’d wager that the difference has a lot to do with their high cycling rates (37% of all commutes in CPH). During my stay, I was exercising everyday and quickly lost the love handles that I had been struggling to lose for years. I didn’t diet, I didn’t buy a gym membership. I simply biked everywhere, in rain, snow, or sleet. After moving back to Los Angeles, I slowly gained back all the weight I lost, I now go to the gym four times a week and after a few months I’m finally back to my Copenhagen figure. The most wonderful thing about living in Copenhagen was the implicit health benefit of biking everywhere. I literally didn’t even think about it, it was my way of life for six months.
Doing a little internet research, I came across a 2008 study published by David Basset et al entitled “Walking, Cycling, and Obesity Rates in Europe, North America, and Australia,” which adds further proof to this hypothesis. The researchers established an “inverse relationship” between automobile use, or lack thereof, and obesity but acknowledged that the results don’t indicate a “causal relationship.” One interesting anecdote from the article discussed a study of automobile adoption in China, conducted from 1989-1997. The researchers found that Chinese men who acquired a car experienced an average 1.8 kg weight gain and were twice as likely to develop obesity. This result held even adjusting for diet, an extremely interesting finding. Check out the figure below, it demonstrates the “inverse relationship” the researchers mentioned.
The lesson to be learned here is that obesity and a wide variety of other public health concerns (air quality, heart disease, diabetes) can be closely tied to the built environment. While the individual is still responsible for their individual choices, Bruni’s article made me realize how systemic many of our modern problems are, and that it’s far beyond simply being gluttonous. The Chinese study mentioned in Basset’s article was really eye opening: even after adjusting for diet, a Chinese automobile user is twice as likely to be obese. It’s so interesting how our modern miracle, the car, is slowly but surely turning into a societal disaster.
Our cities are the democratic product of our values; “if you build it, they will come” applies just as much to highways as it does to bike facilities. Thankfully, these values are starting to change. CicLAvia this past weekend is a great example, tens of thousands of smiling cyclists took over the streets of LA. I biked ten miles last Sunday without even batting an eye. A success story is possible, and the LADOT Bicycle Program team is doing its very best to ensure that Los Angeles is a more bike-able city one project at a time. Over the last
three two fiscal years (July 1, 2010 to now), the City has implemented over 80 miles 50 miles of new bike lanes, 48 miles 28 miles of new sharrowed routes, and 8.1 miles of new bike paths. I can’t but help imagine that a number of Angelenos will have these increases in facilities to thank for decreases in their waistlines.