Time For Something Lighter: Obesity, Transportation and Energy Use

Steven E. Polzin presents some lighthearted observations on Americans' heavyset figures, while examining the relationship between our increasing waistlines and the nation's demand for energy.
October 30, 2006, 7am PST | Steven E. Polzin
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Photo: Steven E. Polzin

As I reclined on the couch the other day perusing my emails with my laptop balanced comfortably on my stomach, I came across a British news story from The Independent, 20 August 2006, with a title that caught my attention. "The future is fat: Bloated Britons are just getting bigger and bigger, says a new official report." Hmmm -- even in Britain, with their more walkable urban environment, higher density, better transit, and far more modest offerings of fast food establishments, they, too, were struggling with weight. If it happens in Britain, then it can't all be the fault of American transportation and urban planners. As I read on, any pleasure in knowing that it wasn't all the fault of my colleagues and me and that we were not alone was quickly lost.

"The British are now the second-fattest people in the developed world, dwarfed only by the ever-expanding girth of Americans. Shocking research to be published by ministers this week will show that the nation is quickly catching up with our larger U.S. cousins. Unless drastic action is taken to slim down, we are facing an obesity time bomb with devastating consequences for the nation's health."


Not only is our health shot, but this may explain our high energy use. Think of the relationships: the obvious ones, that we drive more and walk less using precious portable petroleum products -- the delivery truck has farther to go to get to our far-flung suburban McMansions that are 50% larger than new homes a generation ago and take more energy to heat, light, and cool; and the subtle ones, such as foregoing my corn chips and turning the corn into ethanol. If I lived in a high rise, there would be no lawnmower consuming gas, and I could take the elevator to visit friends instead of the car.

This is some real food for thought. In pursuit of energy efficiency, industry spends tens of millions of dollars to pull a few pounds of weight out of our cars, trucks, and jets with exotic alloys; then we show up to fill the seats sporting a few extra pounds of corn syrup sucrose, carbs, and saturated fat to offset any savings. That extra-large wardrobe adds a few more pounds of luggage to the airplane's belly as well. Not only does my car carry an extra 15 20 30 pounds around for every mile, but, as we get larger, we are more inclined to step up the size of our vehicle so we can be comfortable. Europeans and Asians don't just choose to drive smaller cars because of economics; they fit more comfortably into smaller cars.

By doing some simple regressions using the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) data on fuel use efficiency and vehicle weight, the relationship between weight and fuel consumption can be derived. For each extra pound of vehicle and passenger, on average, a vehicle consumes 0.000011 extra gallons of fuel per mile. If the average person travels 14,500 vehicle miles per year (per National Personal Travel Survey), that means that, for each extra pound we pack on, we consume 0.16 extra gallons of fuel each year. National health statistics data indicate 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women are either overweight or obese, resulting in the average adult American being approximately 20 pounds overweight. Multiply that by 210 million American adults. With a national diet, we could make a modest start in energy independence, saving over a half billion gallons of gas per year!

The most recent barrage of stories says our kids are overweight, too, so add some more gallons. If every passenger in a 250-seat jet weighed 20 pounds less, think of the fuel that could be saved. And if we were thinner, we might be more inclined to walk or bike, saving more gallons. And all the food responsible for the extra pounds wouldn't have to be grown or manufactured and shipped to the supermarket, to home, or to the restaurant, and less waste would need to be processed. This may add up to something significant. Recent news stories suggest Americans spend $35 billion annually on diet and weight loss. That could build a lot of sidewalks and transit systems.

Health care, energy, and transportation have some other things in common. Americans like to eat, drive, and consume energy. We like being empowered to make personal decisions and having the economic wherewithal to eat well, live comfortably with modern amenities, and travel when and how we want. Many of the costs of these decisions are personal, but they can have significant spillover social impacts on others. In spite of social impacts, we are reluctant to interject too much government into these decisions and frankly haven't had much success when we tried. Three-dollar gas, obesity scare headlines, and growing congestion from a couple of decades of under-investment in transportation infrastructure relative to demand have had only modest impacts on behavior. Our efforts to inform and educate may help but may not be enough to preclude what some are predicting to be national crises.

Planners love the challenge of solving complex problems, but we may have an intractable conundrum here. Technology might help but the Segway has hardly set the world on fire, and we seem to have cashed in all the technology advances in vehicle propulsion for more horsepower and vehicle size, not energy savings. The renaissance of transit and alternatives to internal combustion propulsion always seem to be a few decades away. Transportation infrastructure costs have increased about 50 percent in the past three or four years, and yet no one is suggesting that the roughly 50-cent combined local, state and federal fuel tax be increased by 25 cents to preserve our transportation infrastructure buying power.

Perhaps the common element in each of these situations is the fact that Americans are far less inclined to plan for and prepare for the future –- either our own or that of subsequent generations. In many ways, we appear to be more reluctant to sacrifice today for the future than was the case in prior generations. Is the fact that we have had it so well spoiled us? Are we one generation too far removed from the Great Depression? Are we expecting government or technology to bail us out? Could it be that fewer folks have children and hence many folks are less inclined to worry or sacrifice for the future? Regardless of the cause, and it is certainly not a universal problem, until more people begin thinking more about the future and less about the present we are not likely to make as much headway on solving obesity, energy, or transportation problems as many of us hope.

So what do we do? As I laid on the couch, a few hours and four infomercials later, I had a plan. For just three easy installments of $39.99, I will be receiving the newest guaranteed weight loss contraption that folds conveniently for storage. For another two convenient credit card payments of $29.99, I will get three motivational videos to help me chop, hop and bounce myself to a new, lean, sexy self. For four easy monthly payments of $19.99, I will be receiving energy supplements. And for $34.95, I will be receiving the Dr. Wannagetrich diet book with a money back guarantee. All told, for about $300, I am going to lose over 140 pounds in the next 90 days, guaranteed or my money back. A few more infomercials and I may be able to disappear completely!

Perhaps we could get a celebrity to do an infomercial to sell transit systems, high density urban living, energy efficiency, and adequate resource commitments for new transportation infrastructure? Perhaps we should offer a money back guarantee when we produce transportation or land use plans? Maybe do citizen participation through television infomercials? Or how about one of those Fred Flintstone-style cars, or one with a treadmill built in the floor of the car? Then we can get exercise, save energy, and remain unimpeded in our automobility.

Got to go now -- the pizza man is at the door.

Steven E. Polzin worked for transit agencies in Chicago, Cleveland, and Dallas before joining the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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