by Carly Sieff
We have all heard ad-nauseum that obesity rates in the United States are increasing radically. But what has changed so dramatically in our lives to cause these rates to double in the past 50 years from 13% in 1962 to 26.1% in 2011 (CDC)? Trends in housing show that destinations are getting farther from origins, as houses move closer to the cul-de-sac and retail becomes part of a strip mall creeping towards the highway. Naturally then, streets have become more dangerous; they are filled with fast moving drivers, afraid to leave their automobile until they are safely pulled into the garage. The ‘low-hanging fruit’ of physical activity, that which was previously engrained in the walk and bike commutes of our daily lives, have practically disappeared for most of us. But I believe I am not alone is denying the need for 4 tons of sheet metal, a 200 horsepower engine, requiring a 180 square foot parking space and emitting 425 grams of CO2 just to get me a mile down the block. If only we could recreate the land use and transportation network of the city and its travel preferences before drive-thrus and strip malls.
The benefits we reap from walking and biking regarding obesity prevention have been proven time and time again in academic research. One study, for example, demonstrated that a 5% increase in walkability is associated with a per capita 32.1% increase in time spent in physically active travel and a 0.23-point reduction in body mass index (Frank et al 2007). Benefits also go far beyond weight loss. New Urbanism communities demonstrate improved environmental health through a reduction of emissions associated with driving; increased social capital resulting from interactions and shared experiences; decreased mental illness and anxiety that comes with driving and inactivity; and financial savings through reductions in car maintenance, gas, health-related costs and gym memberships.
Stapleton, Denver, Colorado (DT)
So how do we create a town where residents not only can, but want to walk to the grocery store, bike with their kids to school, and bike to dinner? In order to reap the benefits of increased active commuting, we need to pass policies and revise town ordinances with the pedestrian, not the car, in mind. This begins with disincentivizing driving by instilling parking costs in order to accurately reflect the cost of driving. We also need to reduce the quantity of parking; a sea of parking designed for the 5th busiest day of the year decreases density, creates a dangerous barrier for pedestrians, and sends the message that driving is the default option. We can do this by changing ordinances to include parking space maximums rather than minimums for new developments. Mixed-use developments can also share parking to optimize their facilities.
Increasing the density and variety of destinations through zoning for mixed-use developments with smaller sites allows residents to access more places within walking distance from their home. A number of design elements that can be written into town ordinances contribute greatly to a pedestrian-scale. Small inclusions such as street furniture, trees providing shade, public art, bricked sidewalks and architecturally detailed facades can ‘activate’ a space. These features allow for coincidental interactions with neighbors, stimulating environments, and increase safety through the ‘eyes on the street’ effect. To address what can be a dangerous and contentious interaction between transportation modes, a Complete Streets policy considers bicyclists and pedestrians, in addition to cars, in the planning and design of streets. This means wide sidewalks, protected bicycle infrastructure and traffic calming devices that keep everyone safe.
It may sound like implementation of these policies is ambitious, but that doesn’t mean this vision is impossible or even unreasonable. In fact, this smart growth development is beneficial for all stakeholders: the developer, town policy-makers, business-owners and residents. It is estimated that homes in New Urbanist communities, containing many of the policies described above, sell at 15-20% higher than conventional neighborhoods (Song and Knapp 2003). Asheville, North Carolina demonstrated an 800% greater return on investment for a business in the mixed-use downtown as compared to a strip mall near the city limits. Similarly, an acre of mixed-use retail yields $360,000 more in tax revenue than an acre of strip mall. This doesn’t even begin to get at all of the intangible benefits that directly and indirectly increase health, safety and improve the environment.
Is this an instance when our own progress and technology has backfired? Can we even revert back to a time when the car wasn’t engrained in our culture, lifestyle and land use? I believe that if we can succeed in reversing the effects of the automobile on the planning and design of our cities, walking and biking to the grocery store will become the default. And we will all be a lot happier and healthier for it.
Carly Sieff is a master's student at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in the Department of City and Regional Planning also working at Alta Planning + Design. Her previous work experience includes the League of American Bicyclists, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and Highway Safety Research Center. She is currently studying bicycle and pedestrian planning, while also biking every day for exercise, recreation and transportation.