Transportation Bill Could Promote Inactivity, Intensify Obesity Epidemic

The transportation bill before Congress, which would affect lifestyle choices in U.S. communities over the next six years, could make Americans fatter.

The $300 billion transportation bill, as it is currently written, fails to sufficiently invest in public transit and transportation alternatives, such as bicycle paths and sidewalks. Instead, the bill would plow 80 percent of the new funding into building roads. This unbalanced emphasis would keep more Americans in their cars, adding to the problem that was recently identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Obesity has nearly overtaken cigarette smoking as the leading cause of preventable U.S. deaths. The CDC found that physical inactivity and poor diet caused 400,000 preventable deaths in 2000. While tobacco caused 435,000 deaths that year, obesity was responsible for more deaths than all other causes combined. (For more information, click here.)

Although the CDC did not factor in the issue of sprawl in its study, another recent study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion found that a higher incidence of suburban sprawl directly correlates with higher obesity levels. Residents in the most sprawling counties on average weigh 6.3 pounds more than those living in the most compact counties. (For more information, click here.)

NRDC believes the transportation bill's overemphasis on highway investment would increase automobile dependence and the resulting physical inactivity that is fueling the U.S. obesity epidemic. Americans already spend too much time in their cars. For example, according to an August 2003 report by the Surface Transportation Policy Project, the number of miles driven has jumped four times the rate of population growth since 1969. (For more information on the STPP study, click here.) A 2001 report by the Department of Transportation found that the average American spends about 335 hours per year -- the equivalent of 42 eight-hour workdays -- behind the wheel. (For the DOT study, click here.)

The Bush administration and Congress have an opportunity to do more than hector Americans to change their eating habits by addressing the core problem of physical inactivity in our daily lives. Congress must provide adequate funding in the transportation bill for key programs that facilitate active lifestyles, such as the Transportation Enhancements and Safe Routes to Schools program. Congress also must support active communities by placing public transit, biking and walking on an equal footing with highway construction in its funding mix. Finally, Congress should require that state and local transportation planning address public health threats such as obesity.