A HEALTHIER COMMUNITY CONNECTION
Obesity has become the worst epidemic disease in America. The World Bank estimates that obesity cost the United States 12 percent of the national health care budget in the late 2004, about $160 billion.
The obesity crisis is leading us into three distinct problems. The first is an increased incidence of a number of chronic diseases, including: type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, depression, asthma, osteoarthritis, and even some forms of cancer. Two-thirds of all diabetes and heart diseases are a result of obesity. The second predicament is the combination of increasing numbers of elderly people, among whom these diseases are more prevalent, and the increasing health care costs for this population.
The third problem is the potential decrease in competitiveness that is associated with high health-care costs to U.S. companies that must compete with Asian countries, where employees are healthier and the countries place a stronger emphasis on prevention. Texas is leading this epidemic crisis with 63 percent of Texans being overweight or obese. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, almost 70 percent of residents are overweight or obese.
We are eating more fried fatty foods, as these products have gone down in price. It seems the ability to eat those foods is associated with status, and has become a cultural norm that is difficult to end. Some analysts associate our culture with the obesity problem. An article published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine associates fast food restaurants with lower-income areas. For example, in the United States it was found that there are 2.5 times more fast food restaurants in poor areas than in affluent ones.
The epidemic doesn’t just involve adults. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 35 percent of Texas school children are overweight or obese and Texas children are among the fattest in the nation. Texas fourth graders, for example, have an almost 50 percent higher frequency of overweight than a representative sample of children across the United States.
Our epidemic weight gain is caused not only by excess consumption of calories, but also by our relative lack of physical activity. In fact, as a society we have become so sedentary that we gain weight without eating. The problem has even become one of national security because our survival as a leading nation is becoming more and more compromised. However, the most important role of government has to do with city planning, public health, education and safety.
Our community planning does not offer space for pedestrians and cyclists. The fact is that our cities are planned primarily for the safety and convenience of motorized traffic and transport, although our health needs beg for air quality and non-motorized modes of transportation. Traffic and transportation planners continue to encourage a viewpoint which gives special treatment for the domination by the motorized vehicles. In order to change this unsustainable landscape and rid our future generations of this bleak future, legislators need to create policies that will facilitate a paradigm shift where our priorities will in reality be the protection of public health.
We need to make bicycles and pedestrians an integral element of urban transport in our cities. Creating new spaces for pedestrians and cyclists in our communities can be implemented through the creation of a pedestrian and bicycle master plan for integrating walking and cycling into the typical traffic management and urban design practice both safely and at low cost. In addition, Fort Worth, according to the Star-Telegram, is number 8 in the Nation for poor air quality. If this isn’t rectified, we stand to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in federal highway funds. For instance, according to CDC 30 percent of the average Texas morning rush hour traffic is school related. If all the citizens of Fort Worth were to commute by bicycle once a week, the result would be a reduction of up to 25% in peak hour demands on the City’s roadways. The capacity demands on local roadways would decrease, and there would be tremendous cost savings by not widening roads and increasing capacities.
Here cities planners have the challenge and the opportunity to create a development strategy to offer space for pedestrians and cyclists that will enable our communities to become less dependent on motorized vehicles and more people oriented instead of machine oriented, leading to a type of mobility society where the energy that people consume each day is matched by their energy expenditures. Thus, let’s stop being our worst enemies and work together for a healthier community. That sounds like a plan for success.
Byron de Sousa, MD, Ph.D. is a retired physician and scientist. He teaches Human Anatomy and Physiology at TCC-NW, he’s an avid cyclist, a Texas Bicycle Coalition Safe Routes to School Coordinator in Fort Worth and the immediate past chairman of the Fort Worth City Plan Commission.