Encouraging Biking, Walking in Large U.S. Metro Areas

When home, work, school and shopping are in closer proximity, travel is easier. What can cities do to help get people out of their cars and onto their feet?

If you can walk to a friend’s house, a neighborhood playground or church -- even if you have to drive to work every day -- your life will be richer because if you can easily walk or bicycle somewhere, you do it more.

Physical proximity is important. Unfortunately, many trends are pulling us apart. Even as smartphones and computers bridge space and bring us together instantly online, our physical bodies are getter further apart from each other, and becoming more entombed in our offices, our homes and our cars.

For the past 150 years, metropolitan areas have grown ever wider around successive transportation revolutions, with the car and the highway being the most recent and the greatest distance enhancer. A metropolitan area now covers hundreds of square miles, and distances in both time and space can be daunting.

Have a friend at work? It’s more than likely he or she may live on the other side of town. This might mean an hour’s drive or more, sometimes into another state, as is the case in New York City, suburban Washington, D.C., or even Portland, Ore. Our metro areas have expanded physically at a much higher rate than their population growth. Even areas that have shrunk in population, like Pittsburgh, continue to expand physically outward.

The merits of living more compactly are part of the appeal of smaller towns and cities. Home, work, school, shopping and church are in closer proximity, and so travel is easier.

Can state and local governments do much to manage this process? We can’t change the past, but for the present and the future, it would help if government built roads more strategically and less indiscriminately, and put more money into sidewalks, buses, bike paths and streetcars. If these policies are pursued consistently, our cities change. We can see this by looking at the effect of transportation spending in the past.

In his highly readable 2004 study Canadian Cities, American Cities, University of British Columbia professor Patrick Condon says Canadian and American cities were very similar in form up until World War II. After this, American cities began sprawling outward far more rapidly. This was mostly because America built far more highways per capita than Canada, even though our neighbor to the north arguably has vaster spaces to bridge. Condon details the structural differences that account for this. In Canada, gas tax revenues have gone into the general budget and only a small portion has gone into roads. The effect of these spending differences is that Americans now drive far more than Canadians, as measured by both distance traveled and time spent in a car. Only a few car enthusiasts would argue this is a good thing.

If we drive more, we usually walk or bike less. The distances become greater and the time in the car becomes longer. The major challenge for American cities now is finding ways to make their spread-out landscapes more hospitable to human-scale transportation like walking and bicycling.

First lady Michelle Obama is leading an anti-obesity campaign for children. Her “Let’s Move” effort revolves around eating better and exercising more. To its credit, the campaign does not ignore walking as a component of healthy living. Instead, it looks at how communities can make it easier for kids to walk or bike to school or a park. While playing a sport or pedaling an exercise bike is nice, our waistlines will also improve if we simply walk and bike more in our daily lives.

This story of a friend of mine illustrates this issue: He went back to graduate school in his mid-50s and found himself living for a year without a car on a college campus. He did nothing particular except walk to classes. Yet he lost 15 pounds. A year later, back in a more car-oriented lifestyle in Washington, D.C., driving to work each day, he gained it all back.

Our feet and legs relate inversely to our bellies and bottoms. When we use our feet and legs less, our bellies and bottoms grow larger. And vice versa. Investing in mass transit helps us use our feet and legs more. Generally the more you invest in buses, streetcars and light rail lines, the more your citizens walk and bicycle.

But changing private transportation habits as well as public policies remains a challenge. While the sedentary pleasures of computers are many and the convenience of driving remains so alluring, let us not forget the lower halves of our bodies. Use them, or lose them.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.