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bicycle facilities

Your Commute Choice Can Make You Fat and Less Productive

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Your Commute Choice Can Make You Fat and Less Productive

bicycle-commute-Peter-Blanchard.jpg

woman on bicycle This recent Reuters story about commuters and weight gain kind of falls into the “no duh” category of Obvious Research Conclusions, but upon closer inspection it’s really quite remarkable. The study of 822 Australians found that people who commute to work by car gained more weight than their counterparts who get to work by transit, biking or walking. OK, filed. But it goes on to report that the study included people who all got at least 2.5 hours of exercise per week during leisure time. That’s 30 minutes a weekday. So, if you commute regularly by car, modest regular exercise does not overcome the health impacts of that mode of transportation.

"Even if you are efficiently active during leisure time, if you use a car for commuting daily then that has an impact on weight gain," lead author Takemi Sugiyama of the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne told Reuters Health.

Other research in Atlanta had similar conclusions. A 2004 study also found that the longer the work commute, the more food people bought and extended their driving time by driving to lunch or running other errands, further contributing to their likelihood of becoming obese.

The Economics of Obesity and Skinny Butts

infographic on communities and physical activity

Why should we care if auto commuters gain a few extra pounds than the “skinny-butt, skinny-tired bicyclists?” There is a huge economic impact of obesity associated with medical costs and lower productivity. A 2010 Brookings study reported that for childhood obesity alone, the annual direct costs in the US are about $14.3 billion in higher medical costs. There is also a quantifiable impact of obesity on adults in terms of lost productivity at work. For instance, in the North American division of Shell Oil Company, 3.73 additional days of work were lost per year for each obese employee relative to their normal-weight co-workers.

Another study cited in the research reported that employees considered at risk for obesity were 1.23 times more likely to be in the ‘high-absenteeism’ group than those who were not. With the cost of providing health insurance, employers may increasingly consider the obesity rate of the working age population when choosing between site locations. From the perspective of the digital arts and high tech industries, I’m willing to bet that the rate of obesity might be viewed an inverse indicator of a neighborhood’s or a city’s inherent coolness, much like having active transportation choices is a positive indicator.

It Takes a Plan

Planners have a critical role to play in designing active transportation networks and land use plans that offer more than just recreational and health opportunities. In addition to trails and Safe Routes to Schools projects, planners need to focus equally on taming the existing street network to improve connectivity and access for all users. We need to raise the awareness of elected officials about the direct and indirect benefits of a fostering a culture of walking, bicycling and using transit. As indicated in the research, active transportation needs to be integrated into every day activities. Trails or shared-use paths and other “amenities” often built by developers or by governments using abandoned rail lines have limited utility for most types of trips other than recreation. Even if they do connect people to jobs or retail, they are often limited and people must connect using streets or sidewalks.

Achieving a better jobs-housing balance and encouraging miwoman with bikes and busxed-use neighborhoods that offer complementary land uses is a long-term strategy that requires a commitment of policy and resources.

Investing in transit and ensuring it can thrive in an active, economically supportive environment is another must. But there are short-term, lower cost actions that can occur today. Designing walkable neighborhoods means addressing the barriers of wide, fast roads and improving access to transit for those on foot or bike. It means managing parking and using wayfinding. It will also take more education for everyone. And there’s no doubt that active streets depends on the support of law enforcement so all users – car drivers, walkers and bicyclists alike – observe the laws, know how to share the road, and feel confident they can access their destination safely and conveniently.

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Creating a Culture of Bicycle Transportation

cyclist in bike lane When I want to get from A to B by bike, I try to find routes where I can reach my destination most efficiently and comfortably. Living in Central Florida, which is mostly pancake-flat, I don’t have to worry about hills. I want a direct route that has minimal conflicts (with pedestrians, other bicyclists, debris, roadkill, what have you) and the ability to maintain a good pace. Off-road trails offer mobility, but they often lack access to destinations and feature hazards of their own, like dogs on long leashes or groups of slow-moving walkers. So I take the streets, often busy with commuters, delivery trucks and distracted drivers.

Creating a culture of on-street bicycle riding takes time and education, but it does not have to take a lot of money. Well-designed bicycle networks provide economic value for the same reason highways and rail lines do: they improve access and mobility. When integrated into a comprehensive bicycle and pedestrian plan, the two elements of access and mobility have the greatest power of improving the culture of bicycling as transportation, and defining a positive brand identity for a region, community or neighborhood, generating economic returns in several ways.

Street from cyclist's point of view

Different types of bicyclists clearly need different strategies to account for varying levels of experience and comfort. Destination-oriented cyclists benefit from a direct, well-defined routing plan that offers good flow and reduced conflicts. Most cities and urban areas have the basics for such a network already in place using existing streets. Lower speed streets (

Which Bike Facilities?

The knee-jerk response of many agencies is to add bike lanes or other expensive retrofits for separated on-street facilities. They are often poorly designed to reduce costs.

Even when properly designed, that approach results in a patchwork of roads with bike lanes and no real continuity of network for most communities.

What's needed is a coordinated strategy creating a lower cost shared network to make cycling more accepted and inviting. By using streets that best exhibit a few key traits, a plan for shared streets serves motorists and bicyclists equitably, offering both mobility and accessibility. Using shared lane pavement markings (“sharrows") and clear signage does not require right-of-way, offering a more cost-effective and publicly-accepted way of building a network providing mobility and accessibility, generating greater demand. It can have the added benefit of slowing down motorized traffic in appropriate locations, and there is evidence that bicyclists spend more money than auto drivers.

Six Key Considerations

bad bike lane

Selecting the right streets to place bicycling on a more equitable level as cars can have profound effects on personal mobility and economic development. There are six considerations to creating a preferential on-road network offering shared space for bicycle- and car-drivers:

  1. Continuous Traffic Flow. A network of well-spaced collector or minor arterial streets with few stop signs or signals that traverse a city or neighborhood is good for motorists as well as bicyclists. It serves as the backbone of a good bicycling community. A smooth asphalt, non-brick, surface is important. Too many stops at signs or signals disrupts the flow and introduces safety issues for cyclists. These are the bikeways or bike boulevards that link different parts of a community together east to west, north to south.
  2. A Connected Network. Cyclists don't mind riding 1/2 mile or so out of direction to traverse a network of streets offering good flow and fewer conflicts. Stitching this network of different types of streets with distinctive signage, pavement markings, banners and clear maps further reinforces the emphasis on primary routes where cyclists are invited and should be expected.
  3. Capacity Availability. Very experienced cyclists will ride in heavy traffic, but it's intimidating for others. There are many 2- and 4-lane roads operating well below capacity much of the day, making it easy for motorists to safely pass cyclists controlling the lane.
  4. Acceptable Speed Differential. As traffic speeds rise, the need for designated bike lanes or paths increases. Roads with operating speeds of 25 to 35 mph create a more comfortable environment for bicyclists averaging between 10-20 miles per hour without the need for physical separation. Shared lane markings and the presence of bicyclists using the lane can help keep traffic at the desired target speed.
  5. may use full lane signEducation. Many motorists don't get that sharing the road means one at a time, not riding side-by-side. Similarly, many cyclists do not follow the laws of the road. Using sharrows and adding signage reinforces a message that bicyclists belong and where they should ride in the lane. This must be augmented by educational messages and specific training for law enforcement, cyclists and motorists.
  6. Enforcement. Laws vary state to state, but roads with travel lanes less than 14' wide are not suitable for side-by-side sharing. Police play an important role in educational and enforcement efforts so that both car drivers and bicycle drivers operate safely and with respect for each other. It’s critical to get law enforcement on board for an on-street cycling strategy.

Taking those steps to build a citywide network one street at a time will prove effective at both attracting riders and sustaining economic vitality for a more mobile and accessible community.

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