A New York Times blog from February of this year made the counterintuitive assertion that driving was actually better for the planet than walking. The author argued that walking burns calories, which eventually have to be replenished with food, and that there is an enormous amount of fossil fuels, not to mention greenhouse gases, used in the transportation and production of the food. At first glance, the argument appears to carry some weight.
But a follow-up study by the Pacific Institute, an environmental research organization, showed that walking ends up being more harmful only if the person’s diet is loaded with greenhouse-gas-intensive food, such as beef. In fact, the study found, when an average American’s diet is considered, walking 1.5 miles would generate less than a quarter of the GHG that would be emitted if the person drove the same distance.
That walking should even need to be defended seems absurd. Its environmental benefits are numerous. Besides the obvious emission of greenhouse gases, more driving means more air pollution, which in turn contributes to respiratory problems such as asthma. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every car on the road can lead to increases in auto-related accidents and deaths, not to mention making for a more frustrating commute or trip to the grocery store. Considering the recent spike in gas prices, with no end in sight, walking, as well as public transportation, is becoming a more attractive option to many Americans.
When factoring in health benefits, walking looks even better. Walking can reduce the risk of many diseases, including heart attack, stroke, and glaucoma. It helps manage weight, control blood pressure, and protect against hip fractures. Decreasing exposure to heavy traffic and long commutes also reduces stress, which over time increases the risk of conditions like heart disease. Other benefits frequently cited include depression prevention, arthritis relief, stronger bones and joints, and a longer lifespan.
Conditions such as urban sprawl, however, force many Americans to use their cars to get to work or visit the doctor. Making walking a more viable option for more people will require us to rethink how we design and build cities and communities. Using the principles of smart growth—which include making cities and communities more compact and relying more on mass transit—would be a start. Cities such as Minneapolis and Denver have already been recognized for implementing smart growth principles.
Investing more in mass transit is another idea which could be boosted through the revenues of a permit auction from a cap-and-trade program. Preserving open spaces from development and focusing on pedestrian-friendly design are other ways to encourage walking. And using tools such as Walk Score, which helps people find houses and apartments in walkable neighborhoods, can allow more people to reap the benefits of a neighborhood where essential services are located within short distances.
With the dual threats of climate change and rising gas prices, making walking more available to more people is one solution that can help foster a healthier population and a healthier planet, and possibly make the dreaded daily commute a thing of the past.
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