Why Transportation And Walking Are Central To Discussions About ‘The Fattest People In The World’

by Paulina Essunger

Scott W. Atlas, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, wants Americans to take responsibility for being “the fattest people in the world.”

Seems like a good idea: personal responsibility and accountability are important.

And Atlas is right about a lot of things: “the burden of obesity on the US health care system is at crisis levels (and it’s only expected to increase in coming decades); there is no silver bullet to solve [the obesity problem]; government policy can play a crucial role.”

Atlas points out:

Obesity, one of the most serious public health problems in America, has yet to be honestly discussed.

But in order to have that honest discussion about the obesity crisis, we’re going to have to stop ignoring the heavy animal in the middle of the room: the crisis in American walking.

It seems odd for someone who takes responsibility so seriously to say that increasing rates of obesity are “primarily due to overeating and insufficient exercise” without acknowledging a major factor leading to insufficient exercise: the changes in our transportation infrastructure that deprive us of opportunities for active transportation. Yet Atlas’ commentary ignores the elephant in the room.

We know that the less we use active transportation, the more obese we are. And we know that the more we use active transportation, the less obese we are.

However, factors that are outside the direct control of most individuals have dramatically changed how active we are in our daily lives, have led to the death of walking as a transportation option.

Back in 1951, Ray Bradbury had a foreboding of a society in which being a pedestrian would seem criminal. Compared to other wealthy nations, with obesity figures much lower than ours, we’re well on our way to making walking seem like a dangerous, radical-fringe idea.

Atlas says: “the most effective message government and society can send is to hold individuals accountable for their decisions.” He means hold individuals accountable for their—our—decisions about what they—we—eat and how active we are. But in the context of working to reverse obesity trends and their immense human and monetary costs, here’s another top level decision we are accountable for: our decision whether to let our elected officials—government—know that we are holding them accountable for their decisions.

Yes, let’s have an honest discussion about being the “fattest people in the world.” Every day, “decision makers” make transportation infrastructure and planning decisions that favor cars over people, decisions that make walking and biking—walking or biking to real public transit options, to work, to school, to the store—come to seem more and more…radical. It is indeed time we took responsibility for these and for the full range of consequences they entail. Let’s take some personal responsibility and make sure we as a society make the decisions that instead favor people over cars, favor transportation infrastructure built around the human scale.

Paulina Essunger is a science editor/writer who specializes in climate change. This piece was originally published at Vermont and was reprinted with permission.

19 Responses to Why Transportation And Walking Are Central To Discussions About ‘The Fattest People In The World’

  1. John C. Wilson says:

    Walking is criminal. If you let children walk to school you will meet the police. Assuming of course you can explain to your children what walking is.

    I’ve lost jobs for riding my bike to work and I’ve lost bikes because “security” removed them while locked up.

    Suburbia remains the greatest misallocation of resources ever committed. Worse than war. Suburbia is war on nature.

  2. Paul Klinkman says:

    200 to 300 years ago, religious idealists forged the first iron railroad rail and the first iron locomotive boiler. Since then, the biggest rail inventions were the cowcatcher and self-linking railroad cars. Nothing has been done to improve transit in part because no idealists bothered to look, and in part because crash testing costs a fortune these days. Dean Kamen tried the Segway scooter recently and it lost lots of money. Deploy deploy deploy or dead earth.

    Next, our roads don’t have sidewalks. Nor do we have really safe bikeways. Why walk or bike when you could get maimed?

    If you want to look at a bad joke, look at crossing signals that do absolutely nothing for pedestrians. Our intersections are pretty much designed to mow down elderly pedestrians. The sides of our roads are full of bear trap sewer grates that grab bicycle wheels and flip the riders over on their heads. Bonus points for spotting a disability curb cut with a telephone pole stuck right in the middle of the curb cut. We’re not even communicating with our state and federal departments of transportation.

    We’re also the planet’s fatsos because of McDiabetes food. Our supermarkets are full of highly processed wheat flour, and sugar substitutes that actually make us much fatter.

  3. Frederick Wright says:

    Come to Boston, John Wilson! Not only do we have a soaring economy, your employer will usually bend over backwards with incentives for not using your car. There are bike racks at every building, dedicated bike lanes, a rickety but effective subways system, showers and changing rooms available if you get sweaty, and many other amenities including lots of lean attractive people.

  4. Zimzone says:

    American obesity is, indeed, the elephant in the room.
    Pun intended…

  5. Joan Savage says:

    Suburbia is also the consequence of overtly racist government and banking practices that enabled lower mortgage rates for new homes outside the cities, and forced higher mortgage rates on older urban housing. Anyone interested, look up “red-lining” sometime, and look at the maps that described neighborhoods by race and imputed socioeconomic future.

  6. John McCormick says:

    An overly thin and myopic view of the crisis of obesity in America spreading around the globe where incomes permit excesses.

    Of course exercise and walking are vitally important to health. But how about the true herd of elephants in the room?

    Start with doorstep delivery of huge pizzas and gallon of soda; beer as the holy water of our American way of life; and two hundred (maybe two thousand) television channels providing 24-7 movies and sports events. Finally, the great social fabric shredder; the I Phone, IPod, Google, I Pad, facebook, video games and whatever else people in search of idle dumb-time look for to fill their vacuous lives with ‘entertainment’.

    All of the above can (are) most easily be operated and enjoyed while sitting on the sofa. Let’s not forget the franchised salt-laden, super-sized meat and potatoes, half gallon sugar drinks (corn sweetener courtesy of ADM) we Americans gorge ourselves on. Add your own fat-producing items.

    Don’t turn this obscene health crisis into a failed infrastructure analysis.

    It is about American human nature gaining weight ounce by ounce and reaching a tipping point on the scale where it is too late or psychologically impossible to trim down to normal weight for body type and height.

    Asians do not have the problem we have but as we export our fast-food fetishes to those countries, they are beginning to see their obesity problems looming. British are dealing with it now…..common ingredients again, TV, cable, pizza delivery, beer trucks, and, oh yes, not enough bicycle lanes or police on the beat to assure pedestrian safety from villains and dangerous drivers.

    Excuse my rant. Just a truth telling needed here.

  7. Joan Savage says:


    The healthiest period of my adult life was when I could walk my daughter to her school on my way to the work I had at that time, a total of 2.4 miles, half of it uphill. I would not have done it without nearly contiguous sidewalks and a broad shoulder on the section without sidewalks.

  8. Ominous Clouds Overhead says:

    I did some consulting a few years back in Orange County, CA and had been previously used to lots of walking. I found there was literally nowhere to walk. I ended up driving to a nearby neighborhood and walking the sidewalks, getting lots of strange looks. If you saw anyone walking, it was an oddity.

    That’s why I love small towns, as people seem to still walk around some, especially out West.

  9. Duncan Noble says:

    I knew the situation was bad, but haven’t really experienced it first hand. I am fortunate to live in the downtown core of a medium sized city (Ottawa) in Canada. I ride my bike to work almost every day on city streets. Most drivers respect my space. Could be better, but I still love my ride to work.

  10. Mark Shapiro says:

    Ms. Essunger, can you please forward this excellent post (and something about biking) to the good Mr. Atlas of the Hoover Institution?

    He seems to be in need of some honest discussion . . .

  11. paulina says:

    Yes. There’s a crosswalk at our local public school. Next to the road, there’s one of those rubber-mat-footed signs that’s supposed to sit in the middle of the crosswalk, the kind that says “Yield to pedestrians in crosswalk.” The school had to move the sign out of the crosswalk, because the car drivers kept running into and over it. The middle of the crosswalk next to the school wasn’t safe enough for the sign. Now the sign sits next to the crosswalk, with a little handwritten cardboard sign attached to the top, that says, “please don’t move.”

  12. paulina says:

    Will do… Thanks… :)

  13. Rob Roy says:

    Fixing America’s non-existant walking culture would be a great way to reduce obesity if exercise actually led to weight loss, which it likely doesn’t:

    It’s all about fixing the evolutionarily-perverted food supply that is making us fat (too much sugar and grains, not enough whole foods -meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, nuts, etc.)

  14. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Obese people are a tremendous business opportunity for the medical industrial complex, which produces more of your GNP than in any other advanced economy. Get the people fit, healthy and practising preventative medicine, and the capitalist economy would collapse. Not to speak of the profits of the junk food peddlers and the insurance industry.

  15. paulina says:

    We know that the more real active transportation infrastructure we have, the more we use active transportation; the more we use active transportation, the less obese we are; the less obese we are, the less obesity-related health problems we have and the lower are our obesity-related medical costs.
    What we don’t know is how many multi-billion dollar pilot projects we should start at once, across the nation, to explore transformative (not incremental) public transit infrastructure built around biking and walking infrastructure. Five, ten, fifteen, fifty?

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I believe that the great Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who was an enthusiastic flaneur, having often walked around Moscow’s outskirts (even in winter) and all the great cities of Europe, was once picked up by the police when attempting to pursue his pastime in Los Angeles.

  17. Rebecca Jones MD says:

    Of course I completely agree with Essunger. Obesity is such a strange epidemic because we know the cure: diet and exercise (exercise absolutely allows for weight loss. There is no debate here). What we have failed to do is deliver the cure. The problem is both our system: our generously funded healthcare system is designed to treat last century’s diseases; and our attitude: we are still under the misconception that obesity is a problem of individual responsibility. We went through this with tobacco. We have a processed food industry that has created addictive combinations of fat salt and sugar and has targeted children. We have to stop calling this stuff “food”, tax it, and subsidize healthy food. And we have a transportation system that favors the car over people. In fact, a University of Illinois researcher has mapped a direct relationship between driving and obesity: If driving causes obesity, we need to commit to investing in good public transportation accessible to all, that removes barriers to walking and biking safely. No drug is going to fix this problem. We have to be prepared to support changes that are bold, innovative and truly transformative.

  18. dr2chase says:

    It helps; it helps you move your set point a few hundred calories per day. When I ramped up to 50 miles/week on a bicycle (that’s 2000-2500 kcal/week burned), I rapidly lost about 20 pounds, and they’ve stayed off for years, but I haven’t lost anymore. What you don’t get is steady weight loss.

    It has benefits in addition to minor weight loss — improved blood chemistry, more flexible joints, able to shovel snow without feeling wiped out.

  19. dr2chase says:

    The Dutch spend 30 Euros per person per year. For us, that would be $12 billion per year, every year. So $12B is not “transformative”, unless we’re willing to wait a while.

    Note that it’s not all carrots for the cyclists, either; they have high taxes on auto purchase, high taxes on gasoline, stringent driver training, and quite-low speed limits in places where cars share space with unarmored people.

    Difficulty here is to get past the beggar-thy-neighbor “why do they get nice stuff?” approach to public works. There’s place cycling infrastructure will work better, and places it will work worse; I would much prefer to see a billion dollars spent somewhere that it would actually be used. A lot of those places that won’t make good use of bike or foot infrastructure get a heck of a lot of benefit from interstate highways and federally protected oil supplies.