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« Shit Cyclists Say | Main | Warne’s World »



America leads the world. That statement is not always true, but many trends that start in the US often spread to other countries. I remember growing up in England years ago; I noticed I could always tell an American by his appearance.

Not just his clothes, but men were usually just bigger; taller, broader shoulders and fuller in the face. In the more than 30 years that I have lived in the US I have seen big and tall go to obese, to morbid obese. This trend is now steadily spreading all over the world.

America’s addiction to food, and more especially junk food; is sold to a naïve public because there are large profits to be made with junk food. Relatively cheap to produce, flavor can be chemically engineered in a way that it tastes so good it becomes addictive. (Try opening a bag of potato chips, and eating just one.)

The tobacco industry at one time was on to a great business model; manufacture and sell something highly addictive that is constantly consumed. It was a good business model until people were made aware that tobacco products were killing people.

The junk food manufacturers today are following the exact same business model as the tobacco companies did, and it is killing people. Selling people food that in most cases they don’t need, but are addicted to it. Sodas, salty or sugary snacks.

Hand in hand with the obesity epidemic is America’s love affair with the automobile. Combine a love of junk food with the love of the automobile (Lack of exercise.) and a person is on an express lane to an early grave.

Part of the love of the automobile is the culture of speed; this is a lie being sold to the public by the world’s auto manufacturers.

Look at any car ad on TV and what do you see? The obligatory slow motion shot of a car sliding sideways in a controlled skid, smoke or dust billowing from its tires; or cars driving at break neck speed on deserted streets and highways.

This is not reality; on today’s congested roadways, not only is it impractical, it is downright dangerous. Speed kills; there is less time to react if a driver or someone else makes a mistake.

Stopping distances are greater, and the impact of a crash is more intense and therefore deadly.

Statistics show that a pedestrian hit a 40mph has an 85% chance of dying; that means only a 15% chance of survival. At 30mph the pedestrian hit has a 45% chance of dying; and a pedestrian hit at 20mph has only a 5% chance of dying, in other words 95% of the time the pedestrian will survive.

Plus at 20mph a driver has more chance of stopping, and the pedestrian more chance of jumping out of the way. Isn’t this a strong argument for restricting speed to 20mph in city centers where there are large numbers of pedestrians and bicycles?

It is interesting that as people get bigger, so too do their cars.

In the last decade the average SUV has grown 10 inches longer, 4 inches wider and as a result have packed on another 474 lbs.

Even compact sedans are 2 inches wider, 2 inches longer and weigh 374 lbs. more.

Because of the increased weight the car is given a larger more powerful engine because a drop in performance would not satisfy the consumer’s addiction to speed. (Which is an idea the car manufacturer sold them in the first place.)

This also means these vehicles take up more space on the road, and if you are unfortunate enough to get hit by one of these behemoths, your chance of survival is greatly reduced. Even if you are hit while driving a smaller car.

Just as the tobacco companies in the 1940s and 1950s said, “Smoke these cigarettes, it will make you look cool;” the auto companies today say, “Drive this car, it will go fast and make you look cool.” What they don't say is, like tobacco it will kill you along with other people.

So what is the answer; how can we reverse this trend? We can’t just suddenly take away people’s object of addiction; try to do that and people go crazy, they resist.

If a person is morbidly obese they can now have an operation whereby their stomach is made smaller thus restricting the amount of food the person can shove in it. This is an effective way to lose weight when a person cannot restrict their food intake by simple self control.

Roads too can be put on a diet. The conventional wisdom for many years has been to deal with traffic congestion by making roads wider. This is akin to dealing with obesity by buying a larger pair of pants, and a longer belt.

Wide, multi-lane roads just encourage speed, making it more dangerous for pedestrians to cross and of course for cyclists too.

Especially if the cyclist has to cross multiple lanes to make a left turn, while dealing with cars driving at a greater speed.

These multi-lane highways usually lead into large cities; at some point the road has to narrow and as a result traffic slows or stops completely and the multi-lane highway becomes a large capacity parking lot.

If you pour water from a pitcher into an empty wine bottle, there is only one way to do it; very slowly. Traffic flowing into a city is no different; if you reduce the number of lanes the traffic flows slower; often the overall time of a person’s trip in not increased.

It is a steadier, slower drive, rather than a dangerous high speed race along a multi-lane highway, only to sit with your engine idling in a traffic jam at the end of it.

Multi-lane highways give a false sense of carrying more traffic but actually they don’t. Because of the higher speed, greater distance is needed between each car. The next time you are on such a road, look across at the opposite side and notice how much space is actually taken up by cars. You will notice as much as four or five times the space between each car.

With less lanes and the traffic flowing at a slower speed, cars can safely travel closer together, maximizing the use of space. By putting roads on a diet, space gained can be given over to separating cars, bikes, and pedestrians. Making it safer for people to walk and ride bicycles, encourages more to do just that.  

More people walking and riding bikes cuts down congestion making those multi-lane highways unnecessary. It cuts down on obesity and leads to people making healthier choices; weaning them off the junk food. Maybe if people get smaller, their cars may also get smaller, less powerful, and less deadly to operate.  

Diets save lives; whether they are food diets or road diets. The good news is that city planners and traffic engineers all over the US are embracing the idea of putting roads on a diet. Even our capitol city, and who would have thought that a few years ago?  



Reader Comments (13)

So true, Dave...and no, that enormous car won't make you look slim! Here are some facts and figures which show American's love of big things and big portions at table. Also note the soft drink consumption......http://epb.lbl.gov/homepages/rick_diamond/LBNL55011-trends.pdf

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDoug P

Here in Louisville we've got a road diet proposal that may fail.

On a personal note, I went car-free in November and love it. I feel like I'm out of the "rat race".

I still have a diet issue. I sometimes refer to it as a "stuck intake valve".

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Crowell

Testify, Brother Dave! Given that 1. many states face a funding shortfall for roads and 2. people are driving less since at least 2007, why do keep feeding our obese road system? Time to get roads off welfare!


January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Souders

U.S. cities suffer from the lack of good public transportation system and they have an overbuilt street system encouraging private car usage. Essentially, there is no reason why you would have to drive your car to the very downtown of the city. You should be able to rely more on public transportation.

When I lived in Berlin I could appreciate that concept. Berlin's public transportation is nearly perfect with multiple subway lines, fast commuter rail, busses and street cars. There are Park-and-Ride facilities on the outskirts of the city where you leave your car for the day and jump on a fast commuter rail taking you to the downtown.

Even if you have to drive in, you are pretty much required to maintain a speed of only 40-50kph (25-30mph) as traffic lights on major streets are synchronized this way that they will stay green at every intersection when you travel at that speed. If you try to speed up, you will hit red at the next intersection so driving faster is simply pointless.

Now, living in Boston area I see how crippled its public transport is. Roads are unnecessarily wide, do not have bike lanes and few bus lines do not provide enough coverage. Thus, you are forced to use your car.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbostonbybike

Couldn't agree more ! In the News today in UK, policeman crashes a hi-speed VW Golf while test driving it to see if it's suitable for pursuit work. Quoted top speed of this monstrosity is 155mph ! Vehicle manufacturers regard police cars as a form of advertising.But why on earth churn out vehicles with the potential for such high speeds in the first place ? I suppose the answer is " Slow cars don't sell ! " So why is it that it now takes more time to cross central London than it did 100years ago ? Where's the sense in having a 200+BHP vehicle which is going to spend it's life travelling at just over walking speed ?
A number of years ago the Vehicle Manufacturers set up a think tank to design an ideal city vehicle,light weight, minimal fuel consumption, no pollution etc; etc.
They decided the design was already out there....it was called a Bicycle !!

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterThe Handlebar Code

Road diet in my 'hood? No way, we are expanding our subsidized roads, building bigger highways, wider feeder roads and increasing speed limits with limited resources faster than ever.

Welcome to our future. Fast food restaurants are cashing in on the midnight to 5AM clients by staying open all night - it is the fastest growing time segment in US businesses.

Too true: "The junk food manufacturers today are following the exact same business model as the tobacco companies did, and it is killing people."

Our fastest growing exports are convenience food and obesity. Twenty is plenty but try selling that as a a political slogan in a country hooked on powerful SUVs, junk food, and government subsidized roads/gas prices.

"Time to get roads off welfare", good one Paul.

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJack

Hi Dave, Although I agree with your point (s) as well as the other commentors, In some cases the need for wider roads / more lanes etc... are necessary because of the size and density of the population for a given area. It also has to do with how a city is built. By this I mean most East coast cities are built vertically with high density in tall buildings. Los Angeles is is opposite in that it's built horizontally with suburbs stretching as far as you can see ( even in an airplane ).The population is so large that the roads seem to always be congested. In 1961 Los Angeles did away with it's streetcar system that was a decent public transportation system. Standard Oil,General Motors, Firestone Tires and other large corporations sold the city buses and all the streetcars and tracks were doomed. To this day I believe the system is far from decent. The problem is the city sat on it's behind instead of addressing the issue for many years so now we have some of the worst traffic in the nation. They are attempting to get more public transportation here, but it may not ever happen because of lack of funds. We now have some light rail lines but not nearly enough for the amount of people here and the destinations are limited. Most Americans have become fat and lazy and as you stated are driven to this convienence lifestyle by television. The crap that's shown that influences bad habits is driven by depicted lifestyles brainwashed into people. I takes self disipline and control to decide what or not to eat and to exercise. Some have suggested that raising the price of fuel would encourage more people to use "other "means of transportation. There's some truth to that, but if you need to get across town say 20 miles and it takes 3 or 4 buses and 2 hours time each way, most people won't do it. After WWII there was a big push for people to own a home a have a car as our Interstate highway system was born and the need for a car has been going ever since. As for speed, enforcement will help but the police are understaffed for traffic enforcement so ther's limited effect. Dietary change, self disipline and frequent exercise will help, but one must "want to " change.

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

I disagree with Brian's post: "The problem is the city sat on it's behind instead of addressing the issue for many years..."

I think the city and state did a lot to try to solve the problems - they built all those freeways. But as Dave notes, that's intrinsically the wrong thing to do. It always makes things worse. But, it's a self-reinforcing system - the more highways and big roads we build, the more we appear to need more of them! It is time us to ask the engineering, construction, and political establishments that benefit from this complex to face the failures of this system and reform modern transportation planning.

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Whatever is built, transportation wise, will be utilized. If there is a system of wide, fast roads and little or no mass transit, you get people in cars by themselves!
Transportation wise, here in Seattle, there has been a huge increase in cycling in the last 5 years, a small increase in walking, and a small decrease in driving. The governors latest transportation package did not even mention bicycling or walking. And keep in mind, investments in bicycle infrastructure are so much cheaper than vehicle infrastructure. Re-striping an existing road versus adding new lanes to highways. And given the costs associated with health problems and pollution, penny wise pound foolish comes to mind in a transportation budget that omits bicycles because of budget shortfalls.

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterConrad

"After WWII there was a big push for people to own a home a have a car as our Interstate highway system was born"

And over the next 50 years it can be pushed somewhere else that makes just as radical a change. Hell, most of it was actually done in the first 25. It's not like it's a force of nature about which nothing can be done.

It's a decision.

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkfg

FYI: Retrofitting America and how the design of our communities leads to obesity, health problems and the demand for larger roads: http://vimeo.com/31800232

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJack

Child nutrition is my specialty. Want to know what is making kids obese? It isn't lack of recess, or gaming, or junk food, Con-Agra, or the drive-through.Believe it or not these things have existed for years. The potato chip is hardly a new invention. And today's school lunches are orders of magnitude better than they were in the 50s. Plus, most schools offer breakfast as well. Look at a modern grocery store and one from the 70s and it's obvious that it has never been easier to maintain a healthy diet. To understand the obesity epidemic one only needs to look at our national debt. Since the 1970s Americans (and, as you've noted, much of the world's population) have become used to doing, and getting, whatever they want whenever they want, consequences be damned. Be honest, Dave: Did you ever think you'd see the day when one could—and would— spend twenty thousand dollars on a bicycle? Athletes who sign quarter of a billion dollar contracts? A conman who could steal 65 Billion dollars? Meanwhile we've virtually eliminated manufacturing items such as electronics, clothing, bicycles, footwear, wristwatches...you know, the stuff we actually use. Do you know how much a made in the USA Dickies workshirt costs? Try $250. American made Levis? $175. So what will finally turn the tide? The only thing that I can foresee is the impending economic collapse of the world.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertonyd

Love this post. I walk a lot, to the stores and all over. And everyone thinks I'm mad. It is healthy and I'm using a lot less gas this way

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRobyn
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