The federal government's signature program to promote pedestrian and bikeway transportation alternatives — ways to spare us a 100-percent asphalt future — teeters on the edge of extinction in a U.S. House vote scheduled this week.
The House will have to decide whether to restore funding for the Transportation Enhancements program, a favorite of environmentalists and local communities, that its Appropriations Committee left unfunded in favor of still more billions for standard highway projects.
Ironically, the moment of decision follows release of major new research scientifically linking, for the first time ever, the United States' pattern of sprawling, road-dependent, development with the alarming epidemic of rising weight and obesity that the country has been experiencing.
The peer-reviewed study, published in the American Journal of Health Promotion and the American Journal of Public Health, relies on federal census figures and health data based on 200,000 Americans living in 448 metropolitan area counties. Its finding: Americans who live in spread-out, totally auto-dependent communities routinely walk less, weigh more (an average of 6 pounds), and are more prone to high blood pressure than residents of the most densely populated places.
A less-noticed, companion piece of research, published simultaneously by the American Journal of Public Health, suggests there is a public-policy solution to the dilemma of spread-out development that makes us ever more auto-reliant, sedentary, fatter and unfit.
Tested for several decades in Europe, the alternative stresses serious government investments in expanded walkways and bikeways, making intersections safer for pedestrians, establishing physical barriers to fast city and town auto traffic and planning villages and communities friendly to pedestrians.
The Dutch more than doubled their already massive network of bike paths and lanes between the '70s and '90s, while the Germans almost tripled the extent of their bikeway network. Almost all paths were connected with practical destinations for everyday travel — town centers, schools, parks, office complexes, light-rail stops — rather than the recreation attractions most popular for bike paths in the U.S.
Companion traffic-calming measures — first reported in this column from Delft, Netherlands, in 1978 — feature zigzag curves, speed bumps and artificial dead ends that give pedestrians, cyclists and playing children as much use of residential streets as motor vehicles.
The results, report John Pucher of Rutgers University and Lewis Dijkstra of the European Commission in Brussels, are spectacular. With a more-hospitable environment for non-auto travel, walking and cycling account for 34 percent of urban trips in Germany, 46 percent in the Netherlands. By contrast, only 10 percent of Americans used foot or bike for urban trips in the '70s, and by 1995 the figure was down to a mere 6 percent. Even Canada now registers almost twice our number of walking and biking trips.
Walking and cycling have yielded the Europeans the health results you'd expect — much lower rates of obesity, diabetes and hypertension than the United States. With those come healthy life expectancies 2.5 to 4.4 years longer than the United States, even though European per capita health expenditures are only half ours.
With U.S. obesity levels rising rapidly and our gigantic baby-boom generation soon to reach its retirement years, sensible federal policy would be to emulate the European practices and make walking, cycling and transit options at least the equal of outlays for standard roads and bridges.
Instead, the Republican majority on the House Appropriations Committee wants to decapitate the enhancements program, which amounts to just 10 percent of federal transportation funding anyway.
The decision clearly doesn't sit well with Democrats, who are almost unanimous for the enhancements. Nor, it turns out, with Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., chair of the Transportation subcommittee considering renewal of TEA-21, the country's basic transportation law, which expires Sept. 30. Petri warns that if enhancements are killed, the broad coalition of interests that now favor the entire TEA-21 renewal package may collapse.
There's little doubt most Americans favor transportation choices. A nationwide poll last spring, for example, showed 53 percent favor increased federal spending on bicycle facilities — new paths, reserved lanes, better signals — even if it means that less collected in gas taxes goes to new road construction.
Check Europe again and you see the massive potential payoff. We have hostile main arteries, fewer sidewalks and strip malls hazardous to unmotorized visitors. On a per-mile basis, an American pedestrian is three times more likely to get killed and a cyclist two times more likely to get killed than his German counterpart.
Provide safe environments and people's behavior does change. Germans and Dutch 75 and older, for example, make half their trips on foot or bike, compared with 6 percent of Americans 65 or older. Result: valuable physical exercise, independence, socializing, enhanced quality of life.
Please, Congress, think again!
Copyright © 2003 Seattle Times Company