Accessible places are those where you have a choice of how to get around, especially including the self-propelled choices of walking and cycling. If you can choose to drive, walk, bike, or take the bus, streetcar, or train, then you can do what makes the most sense for you. If you can only drive, then you have no choice, nor do any of the other people clogging the highway ahead of you. Real choice must prefer self-propelled methods over those driven by engines, because transportation choice isn’t just about using less fuel, but must include the option of using no fuel at all. The benefits of walking and biking go beyond saving fuel, however, as they are the only modes of transportation that actually make you healthier.
Cars have existed for one out of the 70 or so centuries we have been building streets, yet they have completely taken over the street with little space left for people cycling or on foot. If cars were creatures they would be considered an invasive species. The domination of urbanism by any single type of transport renders a place fundamentally unsustainable in the long run. Richness and depth of interconnections between all things is one of the defining characteristics of nature. Poverty and shallowness of interconnections between only a few types of things is one of the defining characteristics of industrialized sprawl, which can be considered Cancer of the City. Networks of travel in sustainable places mimic nature in this regard. No place with only a single mode of transport can be a Living City unless that mode is walking. An auto-dominated city is on life support, with life-sustaining resources piped in from far away, and can be held hostage by those with fuel, whether oil companies in your own country or foreign powers with oil.
A few caveats to consider: There are many great streets where nobody drives, but no great streets where nobody walks. Rush Hour is the time of day nobody can possibly rush because the streets are too clogged. There are almost never injurious crashes when two pedestrians run into each other; only when a vehicle (almost always motorized) is involved. The "highest and best use" of a street is to be filled with people.
Most of the news that follows on this page is bad news, because we've made such a mess of access to places where we live, work, shop, learn, and play. But each section on economic health, environmental health, and human health ends with hope, and the conclusion is Walk Appeal, which is the greatest hope for accessible places, and is one of the top initiatives of the Original Green.
The means of access to a place play a huge role in either enriching or impoverishing its inhabitants. The more choices you have of how to get around, the more likely it's an enriching place. The fewer choices you have, especially if they're limited to mechanical choices, the more likely the place is impoverishing you and your neighbors. The principles which follow illustrate several ways this enrichment or impoverishment occurs.
The idea of the 15-minute city is powerful, but not precise in its border. Walk Appeal, if strong enough, can entice us to walk further than 15 minutes, but dangerous or boring conditions can cause us to walk much less. Wanda and I live at the blue dot in the lower-left quadrant of the satellite image, and because many of the streets around us in this thriving university town are really interesting, we happily walk 20 minutes to daily needs instead of 15, so Tuscaloosa is a 20-minute city for us. The big yellow area to the right is beyond the limit of a 20-minute walk, but not beyond a 20-minute bike ride, so it's still in our 20-minute city using our other self-propelled way of getting around. My office, when I'm not working from home, is in the satellite to the extreme right, connected under the expressway.
The area below and slightly to the let of the stadium is within an easy 10-minute walk of home, but is filled with boring industrial buildings, and boredom kills Walk Appeal. Just to the right is a red border which is a double railroad track, which I don't cross because it's a dangerous boundary. Directly below our house is another yellow biking-but-not-walking area which is on the other side of a busy arterial I wouldn't want to cross on foot but which I can get across quicker on a bike.
There is a large yellow area just to the left of our house that's within a 5-minute walk, but to get to it, I would have to cross a couplet of three-lane arterials that flow at high speed from the end of an interstate spur at the bottom, so this is another dangerous boundary. Directly above our house is a band of yellow bounded above by a high-speed arterial and bounded below by steep wooded land with few paths through. But just above that, there's a narrow band of walkable land with the municipal amphitheater on the far west end, then hotels and restaurants, then the farmers market and restaurants in the middle, all tied together by the Riverwalk. You'll notice that the far right end of the Riverwalk is much further than a 20-minute walk, but that's the power of Walk Appeal: because the Riverwalk is so beautiful in most places, it entices us to walk much further. Using our most common route, it is 3 miles from our house to the end, so the round trip taking a shorter route back is over 5 miles, which takes about an hour and 40 minutes.
Finally, there's the river itself. It's a hard boundary to self-propelled travel unless I had a rowboat, which I don't. And it's dangerous as well, because there's a huge wier just out of view to the left where a wall of water crashes down its slope, so when the water is high and the current is fast, someone who isn't a strong rower could end up with them and their rowboat turned into matchsticks. But there is one way across: the arterial is still scary with three high-speed lanes each way where it crosses the bridge, but there is a protected bike/walk lane on each side of the bridge, and Northport has a lot of cool stuff downtown, which hosts the famous Kentuck art festival each fall. So I will someday ride my bike to Northport. But that hasn't happened yet.
The economic benefits of a place accessible enough to be a 15- or 20-minute city are probably obvious. For Wanda and I, we have lived in a 20-minute city since 2003, when we moved to South Beach, and then again when we sold out in South Beach and brought our home to Tuscaloosa almost seventeen years later. During all that time, we have only needed a single car because we could get to so many of our daily needs walking and cycling. The average total cost of owning a car in the US is $7,000 to $10,000 per year depending on the region, so we probably saved $8,000 to $9,000 per year just by not needing that second car. But that's only the beginning. People who mostly travel by self-propelled means spend less on medical expenses and live longer, don't need that second garage space (saving on housing cost), and have a lot more time on their hands for profitable ventures instead of time with their hands on the steering wheel.
Auto Domination has become so commonplace across the US that it's almost like the air we breathe. Or water, in the old story of the two young fish and the old one, who asked "morning boys, how's the water?" After the old fish swam past, one young fish turned to the other and asked "what's water?" That's how we are with auto domination. And the costs are immense.
The most obvious cost is commute time. At the US average of 56 minutes per day round-trip, you're losing about 244 hours per year to auto domination. At a US median income of $31,133 in 2019, that means that auto domination is costing the average wage-earner about $3,645 per year just in time lost commuting. But that's far from the entire cost. Couple that with the cost of owning just one additional car, and the cost of auto domination easily gets into five figures per year. Over a 40-year career, that's over $400,000 in today's dollars. What could you do with that much more money at retirement? Or if you invested those savings at the average rate of return of about 10% in the US stock markets over the past century, $10,000/year at 10% compounded over 40 years could be as much as nearly $5 million, depending on how your investment is structured. What would it be worth to you to retire with a nest egg like that, just by avoiding auto domination?
Here's a really personal look at the costs of auto domination. There are apparently five people living in this house who need a car to be economically viable due to the fact that they can't make a living where they're living. At a total cost per car (car payment, fuel, maintenance & repairs, insurance, parking fees, etc.) of $7,000 to $10,000 per year, depending on where you live, a family that needs five cars is spending at least $35,000 per year on car-related expenses.
That seems unlikely for this family, as several of these cars are old and in obvious disrepair. But as Wanda and I learned the hard way years ago when we were young and struggling, an old car can be very expensive to keep running, and an unreliable car can be a huge time-sucker.
At an average US poverty level of $31,040 in 2021, it's clear how easily life in an auto-dominated place can push struggling families into poverty. And in places like some parts of California with very expensive housing and a sprawl-dominated landscape, the necessity of having a car for economic viability has literally pushed thousands into homelessness, even with what would be considered good salaries in other parts of the country. Google "people living in their cars in Silicon Valley" and you'll get over 45 million hits.
If this family of five were instead living in a place they could walk or bike to work, thereby getting down to one car, the $28,000 per year in auto cost savings, if applied to their house instead, would get them over $300,000 more worth of house than what they could afford in an auto-dominated place. Using another metric, Doug Kelbaugh says that ridiculously long commute times are increasing in the US and commute times are the biggest indicator of the likelihood of getting trapped in poverty.
The left image is Renaissance Florence; on the right is an Atlanta interchange, shown at the same scale. This was my first image to go viral, thanks to a repost by Lloyd Alter at Treehugger. For weeks, I had to keep proving that the scale was the same; I can send you the proof if you like.
Up until now, the economic costs have all been personal; here's where it goes city-wide. In the Florence image, there are about 40 blocks from left to right; in the Atlanta image, there are four. In Florence, most streets have rights-of-way of 10-15 feet, with only the largest exceeding 30 feet. And most of them are paved very inexpensively. In the Atlanta image, most of the rights-of-way exceed 500 feet, and the cost of construction is millions of dollars per mile.
In the Florence image, upwards of 95% of the land is occupied by private property or civic spaces and buildings. In the Atlanta image, most of the land is wasted due to a highly inefficient land use pattern, and the sprawl-based development that occupies almost all the built areas is famously unsustainable as Strong Towns have long shown. So in Florence, you can see a pattern of urbanism that changed the world during the Renaissance, and that still thrives today. In the Atlanta image, you can see a pattern of development that will break countless communities dependant on that pattern for growth. Here's a post that further illustrates the Speed Burden.
Cities don't just impoverish themselves with the Costs of Speed and their citizens with Auto Domination. They also impoverish landowners by building "cheapways," which are those urban thoroughfares formerly known as freeways in the countryside, but which actually make all real estate around them cheaper when they enter the city, as this post shows. As you can read, the total impoverization of the country by cheapways is over a trillion dollars, and the losses in property taxes and sales taxes in in the dozens of millions per year. If you're concerned about your city's solvency, get rid of cheapways!
Probably the greatest illustration of the value of getting rid of cheapways is the Embarcadero in San Francisco. The battle to take down the multi-level Embarcadero Freeway struggled for several years, until the World Series Earthquake of 1989 damaged it beyond repair. The area had long been blighted by the cheapway, so the city eventually chose to replace it with the Embarcadero Boulevard, resulting in property values increasing by many millions of dollars (probably a few billion, actually), and other benefits CNU has written up. As a leader in the initiative to replace cheapways with boulevards CNU keeps a database of both cheapway replacements, and ones that are still standing but need to be replaced with boulevards, around which can be built many places people love.
National governments can print money but cities and towns cannot, so money spent on excessive asphalt in an auto-dominated place comes directly out of the budget of other important things such as schools. Want better schools? Right-size your streets. Next, right-size your schools and build them in neighborhoods so that many nearby kids can walk to school. Because parents can wait on neighborhood streets rather than "stack lanes," you'll save acres of asphalt on the campus itself.
And it's not just schools that are hurt by spending on the infrastructure of auto domination. Public safety departments are considered essential expenses, which leaves "soft" budget items like parks & recreation & others which help make the city a better place to live as the ones that take the hit. Reducing things that make the city a better place to live in exchange for the excess infrastructure of auto domination represents many lost opportunities that persist for decades because once you have all that excessive infrastructure, you have to continue to pay to maintain it.
The economic costs of auto domination and the need for speed are staggering, but you have a choice on how those costs affect you personally. In our case, we have chosen to live right at the edge of downtown, so except for thunderstorms, we only need to drive a couple times per week. This map of Tuscaloosa shows how many daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly needs and wants occur within our 20-minute city because Walk Appeal is strong. I call this map the Web of Daily Life, because it represents the things we can get to using our self-propelled means of walking and cycling. You can't even read half of the destinations because they're stacked up so closely, and that's with no names at all for the food and drink establishments, which are represented just by blue dots. Here's a post that lays out all those blue dots one destination type at a time.
Of all the foundational elements of the Original Green, the relationship between the accessibility of a place and its environmental health might be the most obvious, because it's abundantly clear that a place where it's easy and enticing to walk and cycle, and where people have choices of mechanical ways of getting around that are broader than just the automobile is much more likely to have a healthier environment that auto-dominated places. What follows are a number of threats to local environmental health, some of which have impacts far afield of where they originate.
The elephant in the room when discussing environmental health is the question of Climate Change. Transportation and buildings are the #1 and #2 human-generated sources of atmospheric carbon, swapping places depending on which list you're reading. Meanwhile, tens of millions in the US don't believe Climate Change is occurring. For the record, I do. I believe what I've seen with my own eyes far more than what someone else tells me, and here's what I've seen. And here's what I believe: we're going about it all wrong.
This is the tower of the United Nations, and the prevailing Climate Change narrative has it that any meaningful progress can only be made in a global forum such as this. But despite agreements in recent decades, the atmospheric carbon keeps climbing. There are three problems: World population keeps growing, consumption per person keeps growing, and nations are famously incapable of enforcing consumption targets, even with the best of intentions. And not all nations have the best of intentions, as Brazil is currently illustrating. Remember the UK's plan to make all new construction carbon-neutral by 2016? I seem to recall that it whimpered out of existence when the builders protested.
Actually, there's a fourth problem, which is the greatest one of all: by entrusting Climate Change solutions to the politicians powerful enough to write international treaties, we are sidelining almost all of the world's population, essentially saying "there's nothing you can do except call your representative and appeal for action." It is to be expected that politicians will say "we are the ones who can provide the solution," because they're always on the hunt for more sources of power. But they've had decades. There must be another approach.
Let's do a thought experiment: What if, instead of the top-down approach which has a long history of not working at a global scale, there might be a bottom-up strategy with a much better chance of positive change? What might it look like? If it's truly grassroots, then it engages members of local communities, and regional cultures at large, just as a living tradition does. As a matter of fact, the operating system of any such strategy should be a living tradition, since this is the only process proven over millennia to engage the people broadly. But because regional conditions, climate, and culture vary widely around the globe, those living traditions must each be native-born to their region, not imposed by internationalists.
What about the content of those native-born regional traditions? The patterns that make up the content of those regional traditions must be all about "how do we make the place we live a better place?" Because the love of our homeland ranks right up there with breathing, water, eating, and a few other things as the strongest human motivators, as philosopher Roger Scruton pointed out in How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism. And it turns out that if we're truly looking to make things better rather than bigger, then the patterns of place and of life within those places will do far more to combat Climate Change than anything the politicians or the inventors have delivered to us so far. Politics and hopes of innovation clothed in techno-grandiosity almost always deceive instead of delivering. And politics always divide us. But who on earth is against making their home and their hometown a better place?
Unfortunately, the deck is stacked against us. In the decades since the Mad Men era, corporate marketing has gotten exceptionally good at selling standard of living over quality of life. And so the exponential increase in US stock market indices since 1900 looks pretty similar to the atmospheric carbon chart over the same period of time. So industry has trillions of reasons to keep us on the curve of exponentially increasing consumption. As a result, many could rightfully call improvement of the global environment a pipe dream.
But those places laser-focused on adapting to today's conditions and transforming themselves into better hometowns will certainly enjoy benefits one or two generations into the future that those set on the status quo will not. Beyond that, who can know? But for those living now, it seems clear that we should all be doing what we can while we can to make home a better place.
Air temperature in cities is higher than in the surrounding countryside, and the additional heat can push people past the tipping point where they choose to drive in an air conditioned car instead of walking or cycling. So elevated air temperatures alone can transform an accessible place into an auto-dominated place.
Urban heat islands have several sources of heat. Paving (especially dark asphalt paving) absorb large amounts of heat from the sun and act as heat sinks, storing and then releasing heat into the atmosphere for hours after the sun goes down. Automobile exhaust is hot, as it contains the combustion gases of just-burned gasoline or diesel fuel. And when heat in the city encourages more people to drive, this becomes a vicious cycle. Paving isn't the only material problem in the city. The cooler surrounding countryside is covered with forests and fields, and the plant material has several cooling effects, but the city is built mostly of hard materials which absorb heat, many of which are dark and therefore absorb large amounts of heat, although few absorb more heat than new asphalt, which is nearly black. These harder, darker materials have been creating urban heat islands from the earliest days of cities, so it's not entirely a new problem. Lakes and rivers in the surrounding countryside have a strong cooling effect, but daylit water is rarer in the city because most of it is piped into underground storm sewers.
All mechanical devices in the city release waste heat into the city air, but the one of the greatest sources of waste heat, and the largest vicious cycle of urban heat islands, is the heat released by air conditioners. An air conditioner cools by capturing heat from interior air and releasing it into exterior air. But this makes the exterior air hotter, of course, which in turn causes the air conditioner to run more, making the outside air even hotter.
Fortunately, we can do several things to reduce urban heat islands. The top and first solution should be to plant street trees on every street where people might walk. This creates cooler, shady paths, and there are several other benefits which compound into a powerful virtuous cycle. Next, remove minimum offstreet parking requirements from the zoning code. There are nearly two billion parking spaces in parking lots across the US, which is 8 spaces for every car, so we are hideously over-parked, and every space converted to something else reduces the amount of the sun's heat that is captured.
Surface reflectivity is a major issue that is surprisingly easy to improve, at least in theory. If all building roofs were more reflective, air conditioning loads would drop dramatically. The best roofs are reflective metal, then white, then light colors. The problem here is the fact that dark roof colors can be a strong part of the building culture of the place, even when it's a hot place. Fortunately, there is now a track record of compelling new architecture with reflective roofing spreading across the Southeast, beginning with Seaside, Florida and it's 5V and corrugated metal roofs, then a couple decades later with the nearby Alys Beach and its white roofs. As for paving, cities should move quickly to get the new reflective coatings down on their streets. These coatings make the paving look somewhat lighter, like old asphalt vs. new asphalt, but they're designed to reflect more heat than their color would indicate, so paving doesn't look outlandishly different. And a strong case could be made that the financial return of reflective paving coatings when all benefits are taken into account is compelling. There are several addtional steps, all of which fall under the umbrella of increasing Walk Appeal. Higher Walk Appeal is key to getting people outdoors, where they get conditioned to the local environment so that they can live in season, resulting in the ability to throw the windows open most of the year, short-circuiting that greatest vicious cycle of air conditioning on all but the most extreme days.
People rightfully observe that auto domination damages the environmental health of most cities more than any other single force, then they look at places where cars have been banned from parts of cities, such as the historic core, and say "let's ban cars and that will solve all our problems. But banning cars as a first step as some have suggested isn’t just any kind of magic; it's black magic. There are several steps in between that take time & lots of hard work. Wishing otherwise is as useful as wishing for the genie to instantly make me rich. It can be done in the places where the hard work of the intermediate steps have already been done, or where it has forever been that way, like in Venice. But banning cars as a first step will never work without those middle steps having already been accomplished. Any urban makeover that has any chance of implementation must clearly improve people's lives. Things that punish people or make their lives as they know them impossible have no chance of getting done, or more likely, they'll never even get started.
Air quality is equally an environmental health issue and a human health issue, but since there are so many human health impacts of auto domination, air quality is included here. There are countless lists of the causes of degraded air quality, and sources of air pollution, but automobile emissions are always near or at the top of the lists. And industrial sources necessary to produce the steel of autos and bridges, and the concrete of bridges and highways are usually close to the top as well. And the sobering thing to consider is that the auto-dominated landscape is only a small part of the planet, but its impact is responsible for what is often the top two sources of bad air quality. The good news is that there is probably nothing we could do to have a broader impact on environmental health than doing the hard work of transforming places from a condition of auto-domination to places that are compact, mixed-use, and walkable. Or better yet, places that are compact, mixed-use, and that have high Walk Appeal.
Grand Central Terminal in New York City is a paragon of virtue for transit, bringing about 185,000 people into the city each day. This is almost 12% of the 1.6 million people who commute into Manhattan daily. But here's the problem: with pandemic concerns about the close quarters of transit, moving a significant percentage of those commuters to cars means complete gridlock, so that commuters would either have to leave unthinkably early and return home incredibly late, or their useful workday would be only a small fraction of 8 hours.
The Original Green has long advocated for people to make a living where they're living. The easy answer post-pandemic is for people to live and work wherever they've decamped; the harder solution is to find a place to live within a walk or a bike ride to their original workplace once offices reopen. Either way, transit needs to be seen as a necessary evil forced upon cities by the failure of urbanism to naturally allow people to make a living where they're living and walk to the grocery store. Accomplish these two things, and transit is mostly unnecesssary.
To be clear, hyper-concentrations of uses connected by massive transportation is considered a feature, not a bug, of industrial urbanism. Which begs the question of whether this is the model we should be following any longer. How might industrial urbanism be incrementally transformed over time to be much more localized? We have witnessed many clues during the pandemic; now is the time to sort out the patterns that work best.
There's no way to know without contacting the marketing department, but this building complex might claim to be net-zero by generating enough electricity using renewable sources to meet the full demand of the complex. But what is obvious at just a glance is that it is accessible only by an interstate and a couple multi-lane highways, and with a forest to the left and a hayfield (with bales) to the right, it's probably out on an urban fringe somewhere. So not only do you have to drive to get there; it's probably quite a long drive.
The only true Net-Zero buildings are those which have no net consumption of resources either in the building itself and its site, or in the ability of the inhabitants of that building to get around in a self-propelled way to their daily needs. Even with a true Net-Zero building, there are many more carbon impacts based on the things we consume, beginning with food. How many calories of fossil fuels are required to bring one calorie of food to your table? The US average was 80-to-1 a decade ago, and has almost certainly been climbing since.
The "net-zero" bottom line can only be achieved by wearing serious computational blinders. So are "net-zero" buildings without value? Not necessarily. If they truly are generating significant amounts of renewable energy, that's a good thing. But people should realize that "net-zero" claims are mostly marketing made possible by ignoring the full impact of inhabiting the place.
There is no equipment operating so efficiently as equipment that is turned off. The ability of Walk Appeal to entice people outdoors, and the ability of great outdoor rooms to keep them there leads to the condition described earlier known as "living in season," where on all but the most extreme days of the year, people can throw the windows open and turn off the equipment because they're so well-tuned to the climate of home.
The connection between human health and places we can access with a range of transportation choices, especially including the self-propelled means of walking and cycling, is profoundly obvious to me because I might not even be alive today had I stayed in the auto-dominated places where I lived for almost all my life before 2003. My story is below, in the section on obesity and auto domination. As with the sections above, we'll look at a lot of things we're doing wrong today, but finish with hope.
This elderly woman lying dead had just left her doctor's office when she was mowed down by this van on Alton Road in South Beach. I lived about four blocks away at the time, and scenes of carnage like this were commonplace. Tragically, it didn't have to be that way. Alton Road was redesigned in 2013, and the neighbors fought Florida DOT for years, seeking slower traffic, but in the end the DOT prevailed with a 35 mph posted speed and several speed-inducing details. This resulted in travel speeds regularly in the 45-50 mph range, which is guaranteed sudden death to anyone of any age, not just the elderly and the children. And the story arguably gets even worse with traffic a bit slower: instead of sudden death, people struck by cars may be paralyzed, dismembered, or suffer other lifelong injuries. It is only when actual travel speeds are less than 25 mph that people struck by automobiles sustain injuries which heal quickly, from broken bones down to just bumps and bruises.
Here's the toll of the auto domination bloodbath: Nearly 6,000 pedestrians were killed by cars in 2017, and another 137,000 who didn't die needed emergency medical care, according to CDC. And that's only a small part of the picture, as around 40,000 people are killed by cars each year in the US, including pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists. These 40,000 people killed by auto violence are four times as great as the 10,000 killed by gun violence in the US, yet there are great protests (as there should be) against gun violence, but hardly a word in most places against auto violence, even though it takes out enough people to populate a small city each year in the US. And of the 6 million crashes in the US each year involving people on foot, on bikes and motorcycles, and in automobiles, a staggering 2 million result in permanent injuries. Why don't we take the deaths and permanent injuries of so many Americans far more seriously?
It should come as no surprise that SUVs are more lethal, and that their killing power margin increases with speed. The reasons are obvious: they are heavier than cars, and their front ends tend to be taller, smashing people rather than bouncing them over the top. Monster trucks are even worse, because they are even heavier, and their front ends are even taller. And all this is by design. It is almost as if the designers have adopted the ancient attitude of Cain, after killing his brother Abel: "am I my brother's keeper?" He wasn't, but he should have been. And the big-vehicle designers really should be concerned about the safety of those in and around their creations.
Vision Zero, first implemented in Europe in the 1990s, makes a strong case that death by car is not inevitable, and that saving lives isn't expensive. Collisions aren't "accidents," they are instead "crashes" because almost all of them are preventable. An accident is unforeseen and likely inevitable; an auto crash is the clearly foreseeable result of street design and vehicle design, and therefore not at all inevitable.
Long commutes are marriage-killers. The longer your commute, the more likely your marriage is to end in divorce. But that's only one of many threats to your physical health, mental health, and arguably even your spiritual health incurred during long commutes. If you're from a community of faith, for example, built on the principle of "love your neighbor as yourself," then how much does it reinforce your spiritual health to be reduced to shouting at the idiot who just cut in front of you? And remember, in the account of the Good Samaritan, he had never before met the robbed and beaten guy, but he treated him like a neighbor while the others did not.
While that story is almost 2,000 years old, there is much recent science supporting the idea that more time in our communities is better than more time in our cars. Charles Montgomery's Happy City is just brimming with this recent science on the physical and emotional health impacts of city design. Of those, impacts of commuting include the following: Even if you don't suffer from road rage, your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar are all likely to increase, you're likely to gain weight (see my story below), your risk of anxiety and even depression increase, and your happiness declines. And that hour per day of quality time with your steering wheel? That could have been spent at the gym or out running.
Other studies have shown that long commutes make you less likely to interact with your social community when you finally get home, increasing isolation and reducing your emotional health on several counts. Those with long commutes tend to sleep less, which can be a precursor of numerous health problems. And finally, commuting by car invariably exposes you to a twice-daily extended dose of air pollution. But it's not just the commuters who suffer from air pollution. New hyper-local pollution mapping highlights parts of the city where people are at risk of early death due to air pollution levels. And as you might guess, those danger zones follow car commuter corridors closely.
I have countless pictures of obese people, but rather than picking on someone else, this is me on the left in 2002, clinically obese at 245 pounds after 42 years of life in auto-dominated places. I was a tired old man, and likely would not have lived until now had I continued that course. On the right is how I look now, after first living in highly walkable South Beach for 17 years, and now living in a highly walkable part of Tuscaloosa. I generally stay about 50 to sometimes 60 pounds less than what I was in those old unhealthy days due to getting around on foot or bike to almost all my daily destinations when it's not storming.
Human blubber, which is fat, and urban blubber, which is sprawl, share many unhealthy characteristics, and both are often fatal eventually. The human obesity epidemic is matched in deadliness only by the sprawl epidemic, and each feeds off the other in a deadly spiral. Human obesity hasn't peaked anywhere on earth yet. Neither has urban obesity. If we don't want sprawl to kill our cities, we really must start Sprawl Boot Camps (otherwise known as Sprawl Repair, Suburban Retrofit, or Sprawl Recovery) to begin the process of transforming sprawl into lean and healthy urban tissue.
The economic costs of human obesity are staggering. According to the Milken Institute, 100 million US residents were obese in 2016 and another 80 million were overweight. That resulted in $480 billion in direct health care costs, plus $1.24 trillion due to lost economic productivity, totaling $1.72 trillion. For perspective, the 2016 US defense budget was $585 billion. So the cost of obesity and overweight in the US in 2016 was almost triple the entire defense budget that year!
And make no mistake: auto-dominated sprawl plays a major role in the American obesity epidemic. This has been well-documented dating back to 2004 and Dr. Richard Jackson's book Urban Sprawl and Public Health. Yes, highly processed foods play a role as well, but there's a vicious cycle between the two that most people don't understand: when so much of life is spent in cars, it's just too easy to say "I'll stop and pick up something quick." So we eat far too much from fast food joints and the prepared food cases just inside the front door of the grocery supercenter out on the highway because there's so little time left to cook for our families.
There are precious few silver bullet cures for the ills of cities and towns, but Walk Appeal is such a potent one that we have made it one of the top initiatives of the Original Green. The Triple Bottom Line of People-Planet-Profit is something you may have seen before; here, it is reframed as Economic Health (top of page), Environmental Health (middle of page), and Human Health (just above). It's arranged this way because in these three meta-categories of health, the Walk Appeal of accessible places has the greatest impact on human health. For many of us, it is eventually a life-or-death proposition, as it likely was for me.
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