According to the Census Bureau, more than three-fourths of all commuters drove to work in single-occupancy vehicles in 2009. Only 5 percent used public transportation, and 2.9 percent walked to work.
But workers are not the only ones driving for hours a day. The mid-20th-century suburban idyll of children going out to play with friends in backyards and on safe streets has yielded to a new reality: play dates, lessons and organized activities to which they must be driven and watched over by adults.
In My Car Knows the Way to Gymnastics, an aptly titled chapter in Leigh Gallaghers prophetic new book, The End of the Suburbs, she describes a stay-at-home mom in Massachusetts who drives more than her commuting husband 40 to 50 miles each weekday, just to get herself and her children around each day.
Millions of Americans like her pay dearly for their dependence on automobiles, losing hours a day that would be better spent exercising, socializing with family and friends, preparing home-cooked meals or simply getting enough sleep. The resulting costs to both physical and mental health are hardly trivial.
The impact of sprawl
Suburban sprawl has taken a huge toll on our health, wrote Gallagher, an editor at Fortune magazine. Research has been piling up that establishes a link between the spread of sprawl and the rise of obesity in our country. Researchers have also found that people get less exercise as the distances among where we live, work, shop and socialize increase.
In places where people walk more, obesity rates are much lower, she noted. New Yorkers, perhaps the ultimate walkers, weigh 6 or 7 pounds less on average than suburban Americans.
A recent study of 4,297 Texans compared their health with the distances they commuted to and from work. It showed that as these distances increased, physical activity and cardiovascular fitness dropped, and blood pressure, body weight, waist circumference and metabolic risks rose.
The report, published last year in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, provided causal evidence for earlier findings that linked the time spent driving to an increased risk of cardiovascular death. It revealed that driving more than 10 miles one way, to and from work, five days a week was associated with an increased risk of developing high blood sugar and high cholesterol.
Regardless of how one gets to work, having a job far from home can undermine health. Another Swedish study, directed by Erik Hansson of Lund University, surveyed more than 21,000 people ages 18 to 65 and found that the longer they commuted by car, subway or bus, the more health complaints they had. Lengthy commutes were associated with greater degrees of exhaustion, stress, lack of sleep and days missed from work.
Positive signs of change
In her book, Gallagher happily recounts some countervailing trends: More young families are electing to live in cities; fewer 17-year-olds are getting drivers licenses; people are driving fewer miles; and bike sharing is on the rise. More homes and communities are being planned or reconfigured to shorten commutes, reduce car dependence and facilitate positive interactions with other people.
Dr. Richard Jackson, chairman of environmental health sciences at the University of California-Los Angeles, says demographic shifts are fueling an interest in livable cities. Members of Generation Y tend to prefer mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods and short commutes, he said, and childless couples and baby boomers who no longer drive often favor urban settings.
While there is still a long way to go before the majority of Americans live in communities that foster good health, more urban planners are now doing health-impact assessments and working closely with architects, with the aim of designing healthier communities less dependent on motorized vehicles for transportation.
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