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Baltimore Needs A Grand Ciclovia

I took a little blogging hiatus to get recharged, but now I’m back by popular demand.  I recently met Gil Penalosa, former Commissioner of Parks, Sport and Recreation for the City of Bogotá, Columbia. Along with Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota, they turned a weekly street closing event into a cultural, social and public health phenomena (that’s not hyperbole).  I can describe Cyclovia and you can go, “Oh, that’s nice”, or you can watch this rockin video and get a visceral sense of what the simple act of closing streets to cars can do for communities.

Ciclovia: Bogotá, Colombia from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

So, Roland Park has their Ciclovia, but it’s just a short distance and demographically homogeneous.  The point of the event is to get people walking and biking into neighborhoods they ordinarily wouldn’t go to and interacting with people they normally wouldn’t talk to.  To pull this off right, like many other cities have done, highly visible streets need to be closed and the route expanded to include all socioeconomic groups. Say, Charles St. or Baltimore St. (including east and west of downtown). If we’re gutsy, maybe Pratt.  North Ave. may be another opportunity.  Having thousands of people walking, exercising, biking, learning karate, or dancing with hula hoops on North Ave. every Sunday would change the perception of the street forever.

The benefits:

  • Exercise, obviously.
  • Social interaction. How often do you meet your neighbor driving in your Volvo?
  • City pride.  You notice a lot of unique things about the city while walking or biking.
  • More people buying local. Even if the event is on Sunday, people window shop and come back during the week
  • Reduce us vs. them mentality. It’s hard to hate someone you just finger painted with.

So, Gil Penalosa said this is all a matter of priorities. We spend billions on highways which have huge negative externalties.  We can also spend a fraction of that on pretty much the exact opposite; closing streets to cars and giving them back to people with huge benefits. Let’s do this.

Eating McBacon and Driving Everywhere Will Eventually Kill You

Next time a DC Metro escalator is out, just be cool. It's for your own good.

A new government report came out with dietary advice. Hold on to your hats: Eat less, eat healthier, and move more. The Department of Health and Human Services offers the following guidelines:

  • Enjoy your food, but eat less.
  • Avoid oversized portions.
  • Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
  • Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk.
  • Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals – and choose the foods with lower numbers.
  • Drink water instead of sugary drinks.

I’ve always eaten out more often than I should. A few years ago though, I cut out pretty much all soda, fast food, and frozen microwave “meals”.  It’s so easy to eat the bad stuff because it’s everywhere and it’s cheap. The companies that make the garbage have unlimited advertising budgets and their hooks in Congress. I’m all for personal responsibility, but when certain products are put in front of you every day while also being heavily subsidized to reduce prices, freedom of choice is a malleable concept.

This applies to driving, too.  Cultural expectations, infrastructure, city/state/fed budgets, and huge advertising dollars are geared towards cars. All of these variables influence the individual choices made by millions of people.  Car companies and the entities they’re in cahoots with won’t say something like, “Using alternative modes, even for short trips, will improve your health and save you money.” But I can say that.

Reading this report by the Australian Department of Transport and researchers from several Australian universities is eye opening and says what the Department of Health and Human Services has failed to make clear to the American public:

Physical activity must be maintained throughout life. Current, continuing, adequate exercise, rather than a history of youthful or hereditary vigour and athleticism is protective against coronary disease in all age ranges.

Only by promoting activities that can form an integral part of people’s lifestyles can we expect to:

  • increase the amount of regular, moderate habitual activity in the community
  • ensure that those sections of the community who are not interested or able to participate in sport-style recreation can enjoy the benefits.

Incidental exercise is a lot more accessible and realistic than telling people to go to the gym. Other studies show that even going to the gym when you’re completely inactive the rest of the day doesn’t do much good. Even standing up waiting for the bus is better for you than sitting in a car.

Having past the 6 month mark without a car and getting 100% more incidental exercise now than I did when I drove, I can attest that the body is made for moving. Reading back over my blog archives, I noticed a difference in just 2 weeks. That kinda sounds like an infomercial, but at least I’m trying to sell auto alternatives and not bacon products or glow in the dark frisbees.

So next time a DC Metro escalator is out, just be cool. Walk up the steps like a man (or a woman). It’s for your own good.

Update from The Onion: Department of Health and Human Services Recommends Standing At Least Once A Day

A New Normal

Clam seller in Mulberry Bend, NYC. Around 1900. The photo has absolutely nothing to do with this article, but I like it anyway.

I’ve been biking or walking to work for about two weeks.  While I didn’t consider myself overweight, I would say that I was approaching an unhealthy-ish weight due to a sedentary lifestyle and Starbucks Mochas. Early in 2010 I started a gym membership and began running and weight training a few times a week.  Going to the gym takes a lot of will power for me, and there would be weeks where I wouldn’t go at all because I didn’t have the time (or wasn’t willing to make the time).

Having exercise  ingrained in my daily schedule makes me push myself everyday. It’s harder to make excuses not to do it. It sounds like a cop-out, but I think most people would rather get their exercise during the normal course of their day rather than schedule hour long blocks in an already busy schedule.

I feel healthier, lost some weight, and actually look forward to my commute. What people don’t tell you is that after college, you become a lot more sedentary and it becomes really really easy to get into the habit of not doing any physical activity. This is especially true if you have an office job, drive to work, and barely walk 500 feet during the course of the day (like I did).  If you eat just three square meals a day but sit at a desk all day, you will probably gain a couple of pounds a year. A new normal is needed where exercise is part of our everyday routine instead of something added on when we have time.

This is only partly about will power, though. Many of my friends live in places where it would be nearly impossible to walk, bike or take transit.  There are huge public health benefits in designing places which allow for incidental exercise. Being able to walk down the street for a gallon of milk or to a park a few blocks away makes a big difference when multiplied by millions of people over the course of decades. Likewise, hoping in a car for each and every trip has an equally large impact over the course of a lifetime.

Australia has done a lot of research showing the link between incidental exercise and health outcomes.

“Physical activity must be maintained throughout life. Current, continuing, adequate exercise, rather than a history of youthful or hereditary vigour and athleticism is protective against coronary heart disease in all age ranges.” (Roberts, Owen, Lumb, MacDougall, 1996.

Other research supports the correlation between accessible neighborhood design and physical activity:

“Both cross-sectional and quasi-longitudinal analyses provided evidence of a causal impact of neighborhood design. Improving physical activity options, aesthetic qualities, and social environment may increase physical activity. Critical limitations included self-report measures of physical activity, lack of measures of duration and intensity of neighborhood physical activity, lack of measures of total physical activity, and limited measures of preferences related to physical activity.”  Susan L. Handy, Xinyu Cao, Patricia L. Mokhtarian (2008)

I’m able to live without a car partly because my city was designed and built before cars dominated our infrastructure. With struggling housing starts and stalled development projects, this is a good time to re-adapt suburbs to give suburbanites the options that people in bigger cities have. A new normal, where travel options and accessible neighborhood designs are the standard instead of add-ons, is needed.  Maybe this is an argument for stronger planning policy at the national level.  Something to consider in a future post…

**7/14/10 update: The New York Times has an article about this very issue at:

**7/26/10 update: Next American City has an article which looks at the correlation between obesity rates and urban, walkable cities.  In a nut shell; there is no correlation. Poverty and access to healthy foods plays a much larger role in determining obesity rates.