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It's Spring - Why Not A Walk Against Sprawl?

May 6, 2007
Opinion By TOM CONDON, Courant Staff Writer

Spring is the walking season, when large groups of resolute citizens stride purposefully down street and boulevard to raise money and consciousness for a variety of good causes.

So, why not a "Walk Against Sprawl"?

We walkers would wear gray T-shirts, specked with particulate matter, to reflect the air quality. We'd go to some distant suburban cul-de-sac, play music, have a local celebrity cheer us on and then head out. The idea would be to try to reach the center of town - if it has one and we can find it - before dark.

I'm only half kidding. A walk would illustrate much of what's wrong with low-density, unplanned fringe development. It's making us sick.

After more than a half-century of unmitigated development of subdivisions and strip malls across what had been the countryside, experts belatedly discerned a public health problem. Much of it has to do with driving.

The push to the fringes of urban areas is almost completely reliant on cars, as some of the architects of sprawl - road builders, automakers, etc. - intended. Thus, most Americans drive to work alone.

Major studies in the past five years, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the RAND Corp., the Sierra Club and others (Google "sprawl and public health"), have focused on health problems related to driving, and the patterns of settlement made possible by driving.

Settlement in places where every trip must be taken by car means that residents aren't burning calories walking or biking. They, as a group, have higher rates of obesity and related ailments.

The CDC report notes that obesity among U.S. adults has doubled since 1980, increasing from 15 percent in 1980 to 31 percent in 2000. The obesity rate among children ages 6 to 11 has quadrupled, to almost 16 percent, since 1970. This corresponds to a major drop in the number of kids walking or biking to school.

It's not that people don't try to exercise. Some people actually drive to the gym to walk on a treadmill - which seems silly in decent weather, unless you live in a place with no sidewalks or trails. That aside, what many people in distant subdivisions lose is the daily walk to do errands, visit friends, go to the library, etc. By and large, people who live compactly do less driving and more walking, and so burn more calories.

Driving itself, which has increased dramatically in the past 40 years to nearly 3 trillion miles a year in the U.S., is causing pollution-related ailments as well as traffic casualties.

Despite catalytic converters and other pollution-fighting improvements, the vast amounts of traffic across the country result in the daily release of tons of nasty stuff - carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons into the air. "In various combinations, these pollutants ... account for a substantial part of the air pollution burden of American cities," wrote Dr. Howard Frumkin of Emory University, one of the leading researchers in this field.

The burden of this falls on children, the elderly and those with cardiopulmonary ailments. If you are sitting in heavy traffic every day, I wonder if it would make much difference if you lit up a Lucky. Asthma rates among children under age 18 more than doubled from 1980 to1999, going from 3.6 percent to nearly 9 percent.

In a telling incident, Frumkin reported that when Atlanta officials restricted downtown traffic for the 1996 Olympics, asthma emergency room visits decreased by more than 40 percent.

Then there's the great unspoken slaughter. In 2005, 43,443 of our countrymen were killed on the highways, and another 2.3 million were injured. If this were a war or a disease, we'd be marching and demonstrating. But with driving, it's accepted as the cost of doing business. Strange. Scary.

Since none of this is a secret, you'd think we'd be cutting way back on driving.

But in a remarkable New Yorker Magazine article on April 16, Nick Paumgarten reports one in six American workers drives more than 45 minutes each way to work and 3.5 million drive more than 90 minutes each way, a practice known as extreme commuting. Extreme commuting is increasing.

Paumgarten found research that indicates people who spend this much of their lives in a car aren't happy. This is not a bolt-from-the-blue surprise. There is something to be said for seeing the family once in a while.

No discussion of the public health aspects of sprawl would be complete without mentioning that it's putting water supply and quality in jeopardy. Pavement means more runoff, which sends pollutants into streams and rivers. The amount of storm water washing off a paved one-acre parking lot is 16 times greater than that of a comparable-size grassy area, according to the CDC. More than 50 percent of waterborne disease outbreaks from 1948 to 1994 were preceded by extreme rainfall.

For these reasons and others, Connecticut's Council on Environmental Quality has deemed sprawl the state's worst environmental threat.

All of these issues could be illustrated by a walk against sprawl. The problem with the idea is a very practical one. We'd be walking in a place with no sidewalks, the kind of place where pedestrians get hit by cars.

Did I mention that 6,000 of our annual traffic fatalities are pedestrians? What are we doing to ourselves?

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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