Bike-walk sign, Stanley Park, Pat Leahy (Flickr)What would happen if Americans got all the exercise they were supposed to—and they did it by replacing short car trips with walking or biking?  Would it make a difference to our oil consumption?

Two articles conclude that it could.  In “A Healthy Reduction in Oil Consumption and Carbon Emissions” by Paul A.T. Higgins and Millicent Higgins (appearing in the journal Energy Policy) and “Exercise-Based Transportation Reduces Oil Dependence, Carbon Emissions, and Obesity” by Paul A.T. Higgins (appearing in the journal Environmental Conservation), the authors contradict the “widely-held view that meeting current and future energy needs requires either extraction or technological development.”  They argue that, by replacing some of the miles we drive with the daily recommended amounts of physical exercise, we could simultaneously reduce CO2 emissions, ease oil dependence—and slim our waistlines.

  • By the authors calculations, replacing short car trips with walking or biking could lead to profound reductions in oil consumption—saving more oil over a ten year period, perhaps, than oil companies could ever extract from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).  At the same time, increasing daily exercise could help Americans lose between 26.8 and 57 pounds per person (!!), virtually eliminating obesity and overweight conditions for most people. From the extra exercise, the nation would save $117 billion per year in health care costs, or a little under $400 per person each year. Finally, if, as a matter of policy, those health savings were invested into CO2 abatement strategies, the nation could reduce its CO2 emissions by 35%.

    Despite the tremendous benefits, the authors also recognize that any “muscle power” strategy faces tremendous obstacles:  not only people’s “reluctance to walk or cycle even short distances under ideal conditions”, but also “poor health, disability, weather, time of travel, genetics, culture, economics,” and other factors. Still, the potential synergies— simultaneously addressing public health, climate change, and oil depletion—are exciting, and raise an important question: is there a way to encourage people to walk more?

    A recent article in the Journal of Urban Health, “Characteristics of Urban Sidewalks/Streets and Objectively Measured Physical Activity” by Suminski, et al., considers this question.  Although previous studies had linked walking with “pedestrian friendly” characteristics, such as high quality sidewalks and nice neighborhood aesthetics, Suminski and colleagues found that aesthetics weren’t so crucial. Instead, they found “a greater number of walkers using more defective sidewalks in less aesthetically pleasing neighborhoods with high volumes of vehicular traffic.”  Aesthetics, they admit, may influence recreational walking; but walking for errands, work, or shopping requires that an area actually have such destinations within walking distance!  This is pretty obvious when you think about it, but a great point to keep in mind when designing and re-designing communities for long-term transportation sustainability.

    Benita Beamon is a Sightline Fellow and an associate professor of industrial engineering at the University of Washington.

    Photo courtesy of Flickr user Pat Leahy under a Creative Commons license