Our Fat City: the epidemiology of Metro Detroit’s roads

Another week, another vapid ranking from Richard Florida, in which he proves again that rich cities are healthier, fitter, and more “innovative” than poor, fat, unhealthy metros like Detroit.  Florida never seems to tire of flogging this particular horse.  Pretty much every ranking he produces reinforces that a handful of rich metros are full of innovative, well-educated, secular, skinny, tolerant, creative class people — and that Detroit is not one of them.

Enough already.  I get it.  As I noted before, Ann Arbor does pretty well on Florida’s rankings, when it’s included.  But its metro area, as defined by the Census Bureau, only includes Washtenaw County.  So it rarely make these kind of lists, which tend to be confined to the country’s largest metros.

Unfortunately, another new ranking of metro areas reinforces Florida’s fitness findings from a different angle.  This past week, the nonprofit Transportation for America released a report called “Dangerous by Design,” analyzing pedestrian safety across the U.S. and ranking the 52 metropolitan areas with more than a million residents by how dangerous those metros are for pedestrians.   Detroit ranks as the twelfth most dangerous, the worst outside the Sunbelt by 11 places.

These numbers resonate with me personally, too.  I’ve had two friends in recent years get hit and severely injured by cars while walking.   I’ve had a number of other friends who have been hit by cars while biking, some requiring hospitalization.  Who doesn’t know someone who’s been injured in recent years under these circumstances?  Our legislators and planners are not taking this seriously enough.  It’s a failure most of all of our planners and our traffic engineers, who should be held accountable for designing unsafe roads and intersections, choices that can kill.

There is a connection between Detroit’s place on both the Florida and the T4A rankings, insofar as only 1.4% of metro Detroiters walk to work.  By comparison, the four metros on the T4A ranking that score highest for pedestrian safety have respective rates of 2.4%, 4.6%, 6%, and 3.6% —  nearly double, triple, or quadruple Detroit’s.   Metro Detroit also has one of the highest shares of workers who commute alone by car, ninth among the 100 most populous metros, according to the Brookings Institution.  Slate’s Annie Lowrey reminded us this week of the toll commuting by car exacts on our health:

The joy of living in a big, exurban house, or that extra income leftover from your cheap rent? It is almost certainly not worth it…

(P)eople with long commutes are fatter, and national increases in commuting time are posited as one contributor to the obesity epidemic. Researchers at the University of California–Los Angeles, and Cal State–Long Beach, for instance, looked at the relationship between obesity and a number of lifestyle factors, such as physical activity. Vehicle-miles traveled had a stronger correlation with obesity than any other factor.

Again, it’s a story that the media has documented and reported ad nauseum;  I’ve been reading these studies for years, and have taken the research to heart in a number of ways.  While I’m a big fan of and advocate for the Ride, aka Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, I also am a big fan of not getting any fatter than I can help, though it’s a battle I’ve been losing the past couple of years.  So since winter tapered into spring, I’ve started commuting to and from work by bike.  It’s allowed me to combine my commute with forty minutes of exercise, twice a day, killing two birds with one stone.

Metro Detroit’s planning is killing us, through injury, stress, and obesity.  It is a public health disaster with many symptoms, but one underlying cause:  the region’s leaders allowed planners and developers to shape it around a mid-twentieth century auto-centric paradigm.

The good news is that it’s not at all suburbs-versus-Detroit thing, as many suburbs have preserved or cultivated “complete streets” to degree far beyond anything you see in Detroit itself.  By addressing pedestrian safety, job sprawl, and mode of transit as issues of public health, and by demanding that our planners, traffic engineers, and transportation officials make it safer for non-motorists to get around, everyone can win.

At the very least, shouldn’t we be motivated by the opportunity to lose a few pounds?


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