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Unwalkable Suburbs

Via boing boing comes news that suburbia makes one fat:

Sprawling suburbs where it is hard to get around without a car may make residents fatter: Americans who live in the most sprawling counties tend to weigh six pounds more than their counterparts in the most compact areas.

Adding to the sprawl concern: Pedestrians and bicyclists are much more likely to be killed by passing cars in this country than in parts of Europe where cities are engineered to encourage physical activity -- and whose residents typically are skinnier and live longer than the average American.

Those are conclusions of major new studies published yesterday that call on urban planners and zoning commissions to consider public health in designing neighborhoods.

"How you build things influences health in a much more pervasive way than I think most health professionals realize," said Dr. Richard Jackson of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who helped edit the research, published in the American Journal of Public Health and the American Journal of Health Promotion.

"Look at many new suburbs -- there are not any sidewalks at all... The result is we just don't walk," said John Pucher of Rutgers University, who uncovered the U.S.-European disparities.

There is growing recognition that ever-fatter Americans' tendency to be sedentary is at least partially due to an environment that discourages getting off the couch and out of the car. Do adults walk three blocks to the bus stop, or drive to work? Can children walk to school? Is there a walking or biking path to the post office, restaurant, a friend's house?

In a sprawling community, homes are far from work, stores and schools, and safe walking and biking are difficult. The research reported yesterday marks the first attempt to pinpoint just how much that matters...

Far worse were Pucher's findings that per trip, American pedestrians are roughly three times more likely to be killed by a passing car than are German pedestrians -- and more than six times more likely than Dutch pedestrians. For bicyclists, Americans are twice as likely to be killed as Germans and more than three times as likely as Dutch cyclists.

I live in Apex, North Carolina, a suburb of a suburb (Cary) of a major city (Raleigh). Apex is a small town, formerly highly rural, being developed quite quickly. Unfortunately, the development isn't bringing livability along with it.

I've been walking three or four times a week of late. Until today, I've been walking no more than an hour, and staying in my subdivision (by looping around all the streets). This morning, I decided to go on a longer walk -- two hours and about seven miles. Looping around the same streets over and over didn't sound interesting, so I decided to try to walk out of the subdivision. The busy road that goes past our subdivision, connecting it with downtown, is mostly sidewalk-free. Walking down the road was scary -- the shoulders were just a few inches wide where they existed, and the ground sloped sharply away from the road. I cut through another subdivision to get off the main road, ending up having to cross a highway at a stoplight. At the stoplight, the road crossing the highway had sidewalks on both sides, implying one should be able to walk from one side to the other, but in fact the timing of the stoplight meant that I had to run to make it across. I finally gave up and turned around when the sidewalk disappeared just as the road I was on curved sharply and I saw cars taking the curve at 40-50 miles/hour.

I don't think the managers of the town of Apex are deliberately making it difficult to walk, but it's clear they're not making it easy, either. Even where sidewalks are being built, as areas are developed, they're being built unintelligently. Along a major highway that passes through town, gradually being upgraded from two to four lanes, a long upgraded stretch features a new sidewalk that switches sides halfway. In other words, to use the sidewalk, pedestrians have to cross a busy, four-lane highway with no light or even crosswalk.

How many pounds -- and lives -- could we save with more intelligent city planning?

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