Boyonabike!

Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the tag “public health”

Cars and “Freedom”

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Any casual glance at television in the United States brings a reminder from the oil and auto industries that cars equal “freedom.”  Usually it’s a subtle, implicit association, showing images of smiling drivers on an open road, usually along the coast, a beautiful mountain road, or other open space.  Watching these ads you’re not supposed to remember that cars bring with them sprawl, and sprawl destroys those open spaces and those uncongested roads the viewer is so nostalgic for.

Other times the association between freedom and cars is more explicit, as in Dodge’s use of a George Washington lookalike to suggest cars helped win America’s independence from the British [see above].  Another entry into this over-the-top category is country singer Tim McGraw’s recent commercial for an oil company in which he comes as close as a person can to actually making love to his car and refers to cars, with complete lack of irony, as “living, breathing organisms.”  The commercial shows the all-American image of McGraw driving a Jeep along a dirt road by a placid lake, while his voiceover calls cars the very embodiment of “American freedom.”  The ad, titled “Tim McGraw Freedom,” actually ends with McGraw holding a quart of engine oil, looking into the camera saying “long love cars.”

If there was even a hint of irony there, it would be hilarious, but Madison Avenue is not known for irony when it comes to cars.  I think here of the Mercedes ads of the 1990s and 2000s that used Janis Joplin’s anti-consumerist song “Mercedes Benz” as a completely unironic soundtrack.  Joplin’s song was originally recorded just days before her death and she intended it to be a reminder that material goods don’t bring happiness, despite what the admen and women try to sell us.  The wonder is that anyone with half a brain could listen to that song and think it was appropriate as a jingle for a car commercial.

So far as I know, no one has studied the specific cultural impact of the pervasive and unending barrage of images equating cars with freedom in our society, not to mention the economic impact of all those ads on media coverage of issues related to the automobile, the environment, and public health.  It would not surprise me at all if the effect of all this repetitive automobile propaganda on the collective psyche and the media was profound.

Juxtaposed with these images is a recent study I came across this morning, concluding that air quality near freeways may be worse than previously thought.  The study, by researchers at UCLA and the California Air Resources Board, found unhealthful levels of air pollution within a mile of freeways in the hours between 4:30 and 6:30 am.  People living a mile downwind of a freeway are thus exposed to unhealthful levels of particle pollution, nitric oxide, and hydrocarbons during these hours, all of which have been shown to contribute to asthma, heart disease, and other health problems.  The study is yet another in the already large body of scientific evidence showing the price we pay for our addiction to cars.

Because of these health dangers, the L.A. Times noted, the report urged people who live near freeways to

keep your windows closed in the hours just before sunrise.  Use air conditioning.  Install HEPA air filters.  Postpone outdoor exercise until later in the morning or exercise farther away from the highway.

Yup, shut yourself up in your house, close the windows, and don’t go outside to exercise.  That’s American Freedom for ya.

Long Love Cars.

Bikes and Exercise

Last week, a study published in the journal PLoS Medicine documented the longevity benefits of regular exercise.  The study noted that 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise adds an average of 3.5 additional years of life, and 4.2 years for those who do an hour a day of “brisk walking or its equivalent.”  While these findings are not particularly surprising, what is surprising is the fact that such exercise benefits even those who are overweight or obese.  In other words, it’s not primarily how much you weigh that determines health, but how frequently and how regularly you exercise.

In our culture obsessed with thinness, this study helps us understand the overall importance of regular physical activity, rather than simply weight loss, as a marker of physical well being.  “We have to get people to understand that it’s not all about weight,” Dr. Robert Sallis of Kaiser Permanente commented on the study in the Los Angeles Times.  “Not everyone can lose weight, but everyone can get fit.”    Public health specialists said the study offered “very conclusive” proof that what the Times called “our widespread laziness,” is at least as much a problem as the obesity epidemic in the United States.

When I read such stories, it reinforces for me the critical necessity of public investment in bicycle infrastructure such as cycle tracks, buffered bike lanes, and bike paths in our cities and suburbs.  Such infrastructure will encourage more people to change their sedentary lifestyle by making it safe and convenient for people of all ages and fitness levels to ride a bike for everyday transportation.  Many people lack the time, money, or will to join a gym and stick with an exercise regimen, but everyone needs to get to work, school, the store, or other nearby destinations.  If we designed our roadways to make it safer and more convenient for people to ride bikes to these destinations, more people—not just the relatively small proportion of hard core road riders—would use bikes as part of their everyday lives, improving their health and well-being at the same time.  Making it easy and safe to get from point A to point B on a bicycle (or by walking) will do more for public health in our communities than all the earnest exhortations to exercise, which tend to reach those already inclined to exercise.  The study also underscores the fact that the exercise need not be strenuous to offer widespread health benefits.  The belief that one must be on the latest carbon fiber race bike and train for a 100-mile ride intimidates many people who might otherwise ride to school, the store, or to a friend’s house.  We must design bike infrastructure to be welcoming to that vast majority of the population that are not elite athletes.

Add public health to the many reasons we need to shift our transportation design priorities away from the automobile and toward “complete streets” with protected space for bicycles and pedestrians.

Bikes and Health

Driving to Obesity

Rates of obesity have reached epidemic proportions in the United States, according to public health experts, with roughly two-thirds of Americans classified as either overweight or obese.  This is the highest level in the world and poses a host of other health risks, from strokes and heart disease, to diabetes, arthritis, and some forms of cancer.  Obesity and obesity-related diseases are estimated to be responsible for $147 billion in healthcare costs every year.  Adult obesity rates in the U.S. have more than tripled since 1960.  What is even more alarming is that rates of childhood obesity are rising, with roughly 30 percent of American children under 18 classified as obese, and these children will be at much higher risk for serious illness in adulthood.

While the reasons for the epidemic are complex, two factors stand out as most important: diet and exercise.  Americans tend to exercise less and eat more processed fatty foods than people in other countries (though the rest of the world may catch up as we export our sedentary lifestyle and our super sized hamburgers and soft drinks to the developing world).  Moreover, for a number of reasons (having to do with lack of access to healthy food and lack of opportunity for exercise), obesity disproportionately affects low-income Americans and people of color.

We’ve become a nation addicted to driving, sitting in our cars rather than walking and bicycling to our local destinations.  According to a 2006 study by the Pew Research Center, the number of vehicle miles driven by Americans rose from just over 4,200 in 1977 to 8,200 in 2000.  By 2005, Americans spent an average of 100 hours behind the wheel each year and reported a 56% increase in the amount of time stuck in traffic since 1991.  We’re also teaching our children to be car dependent.  Look at a typical school in your neighborhood, where parents drive their children to and from school from as close as a few blocks away.  Rates of walking and bicycling to school have plummeted in recent decades, and it doesn’t help that physical education programs have been cut from school budgets.

Making streets safer for bicycling and walking by providing bike lanes and traffic calming measures would enable more Americans to get their recommended 20 minutes of daily exercise by walking or bicycling to local destinations.  Making it safe for children to walk or bike to school is one of the most important things communities can do to provide the means for young people to get daily exercise.  How wrongheaded, then, that Congress recently cut funding for the “Safe Routes to School” grants that helped communities provide safe opportunities for kids to walk and bike to school under adult supervision.

Bicycling to Health

A growing number of people, myself included, think that bicycling can be a big part of the solution to our nation’s obesity crisis.  For example, last Tuesday evening, I attended a community forum addressing youth obesity in Southern California, sponsored by KPCC and Bike SGV, that featured Carlos Morales, the founder of the Eastside Bicycle Club, who made bicycling a part of his healthy lifestyle and encourages others to do so by sponsoring community bike rides.  As Morales tells it, bicycling literally saved him from obesity.  Ten years ago, he was obese (defined as having a body mass index of more than 30), and profoundly unhealthy.  He dealt with the stress of his job by overeating, and usually came home from work too tired to exercise.  As part of a doctor’s regimen of diet and exercise, he began to ride his bike, one mile at first, then gradually building up the miles he was able to pedal.  The bike also helped relieve his stress, and gradually he began using his bike to get around town.  The more he did so, the more the weight came off.  Morales’s story is an inspiring illustration of how bicycling can help save us from the unhealthy trajectory we’re on, by getting people active, by providing economical, personal mobility so that people have more options to get to where they can buy healthy food, and especially, by getting young people started on a life where regular healthy physical activity is built into their lives.

(L to R) Jose Martinez, Dr. Eric Walsh, Carlos Morales, and Dr. Karen J. Coleman address the Crawford family forum in Pasadena on the problem of youth obesity in Southern California.

What is especially inspiring about Carlos Morales is that he is not only a living testament to the power of the bicycle to change people’s lives for the better, but he has brought that message to his community through his organization, the Eastside Bicycle Club, where he tries to inspire others.

One of the questions raised by forum moderator Jose Martinez was whether government policy can play a role in changing the built environment so that people can live healthier lives.   The answer, when it comes to bicycling is an emphatic yes.  In fact we’re already spending the money, but we spend it almost exclusively on a system of roads that are designed primarily for cars, despite the fact that cars contribute to the sedentary lifestyle and stress that contribute to the obesity epidemic.  Many people (especially parents) are understandably concerned about using a bicycle for part of their transportation because there are so few bike lanes and bike-friendly streets in our communities.  The good news is, for a tiny fraction of what we spend on one mile of freeway, we can reengineer hundreds of miles of roads to make them safer for bikes, by building bike lanes, cycle tracks, and other measures that provide safe space on our streets for people of all ages to walk or bicycle for personal mobility and exercise.

We must make the commitment to bike-friendly streets.  Our lives, and those of our children, literally depend on it.

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