The American Dream has been defined for several generations now as an idyllic home in the suburbs, with a car to get you everywhere you need to go. But that dream appears to be something more of a nightmare, with Americans’ dependence on automobiles leading to increased rates of a variety of ailments, “all of which can impair the quality and length of life,” writes Jane E. Brody in a blog post on “Commuting’s Hidden Cost” at nytimes.com yesterday.
Ms. Brody’s piece highlights some of the facts many of us already knew (and that all of us should know). People who walk—to work, to school, to the grocery store, wherever—are healthier. People who spend long hours commuting alone in a car are less healthy, with higher rates of seemingly every ailment, including obesity, heart disease, social isolation, anxiety, and even earlier death. The post refers to several studies in both North America and Europe providing data that back up these claims.
She turns the idea of “independence” enabled by personal automobiles on its head. Referring to a new book, The End of the Suburbs by Leigh Gallagher, Ms. Brody introduces us to a mom in Massachusetts who drives 40 to 50 miles (65 to 80 kilometers) a day “just to get herself and her children around each day.” Ms. Brody continues:
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.
Suburban sprawl “has taken a huge toll on our health,” wrote Ms. 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 six or seven pounds [three kilograms] less on average than suburban Americans.”
The reality is that Americans’ lifestyles are leading them to unhealthy lives that end earlier than they should. Ms. Brody notes one study that found that people with lengthy commutes have lower rates of physical activity and cardiovascular fitness and higher rates of high blood pressure, obesity, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, depression, anxiety, and loneliness. She points to another study that “found that women who lived more than 31 miles from work tended to die sooner than those who lived closer to their jobs.” And the unfortunate truth is that the physical environment we have built in much of the United States makes this lifestyle the only option for a large number of Americans.
On a fundamental policy level, something has got to change.
But on a personal level, Ms. Brody’s post describes something more fundamental. It explains why I live where I live, and why I have chosen to raise my children in a setting very different from the one I grew up in in suburban Charlotte. “My twin grandsons, now 13, walk nearly a mile to and from school and play basketball in the schoolyard for an hour or more most afternoons, when weather and music lessons permit,” Ms. Brody writes. “The boys, like their father, are lean, strong and healthy. Their parents chose to live in New York, where their legs and public transit enable them to go from place to place efficiently, at low cost and with little stress (usually).” And that is exactly what I want for my own children.
“Commuting’s Hidden Cost” by Jane E. Brody
nytimes.com, 28 October 2013