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Despite rocketing fuel prices and rampant obesity, active travel in the U.S. rose only slightly from 2001 to 2009, with an increase in the share of trips by walking and cycling just 1.9 percent and 0.1 percent respectively, according to the National Household Travel Surveys. The study, published on May 6 in the American Journal of Public Health, was written by four PhD researchers (John Pucher, Ralph Buehler, Dafna Merom and Adrian Bauman) interested in monitoring rates of walking and biking among Americans, as this is the healthiest and most sustainable means of transport we actually have.
Unlike the old statistical methods used by the U.S. Census Bureau, which reported a sharp decrease in the number of people walking to work as their main mode of transportation over the last five decades (from 10.3 percent in 1960 to 2.9 percent in 2009), the telephone surveys conducted by NHTS used more sophisticated systems of capturing data, and instead reported on travel in the U.S. for all trip purposes.
Results did not display any satisfactory turnaround in the usual travel behavior of Americans, who in fact are said to be excessively car-addicted and sedentary, compared to worldwide standards. “American cities have a long way to go to catch up to walking and cycling levels in Europe, which are about 3 to 5 times higher than in the United States,” researchers stated.
However, the good news is, such an alarming pattern is slowly reversing. Analysis published on the American Journal of Public Health revealed that “the average American made 17 more walk in 2009 than in 2001, covering 9 more miles per year, compared with only 2 more bike trips, and 5 more miles cycling.” Moreover, in 2009 walk and cycle trips for utilitarian purposes, such as going to work or accessing public transport, were overwhelming, accounting for three quarters.
But why are Americans are so slow to get used to the idea of walking and cycling as everyday modes of transport? Laziness? Suburban sprawl? Nothing of the kind. According to John Pucher, professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and his research colleagues, it deals with an enormous question of lack of infrastructure, such as protected lanes for cyclists, good sidewalks for pedestrians, crosswalks, intersection crossings and so on.
In fact, traveling by bike or walking is difficult if you feel your environment is threatening and dangerous: “getting from point A to point B is a really daunting experience in many American cities because of such lousy pedestrian and cycling facilities,” Pucher argued.
Surveys detected shocking differences among the various population subgroups concerning active travel trends. Walk and bike trips increased a little only among men, the employed, the 45-64 year olds, those well-educated, and without a car. Conversely walking and biking declined for all the most vulnerable: namely women, children and seniors.
Suffice it to say that in 2009 walking significantly dropped among the elderly by up to 4.2 percent, while cycling prevalence for women revealed to be almost three times lower than men. “That says we’re doing something wrong in the United States,” Pucher pointed out.
The warning issued by NHTS researchers cannot be underestimated, not only for pollution concerns, but also because there is mounting evidence regarding the relationship between sedentary lifestyle and several health diseases.
According to World Health Organization , physical inactivity is, along with tobacco and alcohol, one of the main risk factors for mortality. Also the United States, Australia and United Kingdom continue to register extraordinarily high obesity rates, with an even worsening epidemic among children and adolescents.
The time has come to work for a more sustainable life, yet, as Pucher said, being very clear how to do it, “we just don’t do it.”