Car-Dependent States Hit Hardest by Obesity Epidemic

driving_obesity.pngStates where more people drive to work face an even worse obesity crisis. Graphic: Noah Kazis and Carly Clark

Transportation is a public health issue. As profiled in the recently released report from the Trust for America’s Health, "F as in Fat," obesity rates continue to rise across the nation, increasing the risk of serious health problems like diabetes and hypertension. To solve the obesity epidemic, the data suggest, we need to rethink our dependence on the automobile. 

"F as in Fat" breaks out obesity numbers state by state. After glancing at their map, it seemed like transit and pedestrian-friendly states were doing better than the national average. To get more precise, we decided to compare adult obesity rates, as gathered in the report, to commuting statistics in the U.S. Census. You can download our spreadsheet here

The result is the scatterplot shown above, which clearly shows that states where more people drive to work have higher obesity rates. Caveats abound — correlation isn’t causation and state-level data can obscure important patterns visible only through a closer microscope — but the result is provocative. The two outliers are D.C. and New York State; they imply that while a large shift away from driving can make a big difference, it can’t solve the obesity crisis on its own.

Although "F as in Fat" doesn’t analyze transportation behavior itself, the authors agree that moving away from a reliance on the automobile is a critical component in curbing obesity. Their recommendations include: passing legislation supporting non-motorized transportation, such as an expansion of the Safe Routes to School program or a national complete streets bill; building more safe pedestrian space and bike paths to encourage active transport; and supporting mixed-use, walkable, and transit-oriented development.

  • Glenn

    I am often shocked at obesity rates when I leave NYC or am in more rural/exurban areas. And I also find it shocking how people not from NYC, even people that look healthy, get winded walking around sightseeing. The average New Yorker walks 2-3 miles a day and does lots of steps without even thinking about it. And that’s if you just take mass transit most places.

    Obesity’s health impact isn’t just straight based on BMI either. If you are getting a certain minimum level of physicial activity, it’s not clear BMI is that bad health-wise. It’s the combination of a high BMI and low physical activity that make for a dangerous risk for diabetes. Abdominal fat is the main issue and that is directly because of lack of exercise.

  • Zmapper

    That graph looks pretty flat to me. I noticed how the thinnest city (SLC or Denver probably) is around the 50% percentile.

  • flp

    guys, really, obesity is a far more complicated issue, and driving behavior really does not explain it. this story strikes me as a desperate ploy to reduce driving, and i don’t care how laudable such a goal is.

    caveats abound? that’s putting it way to mildly. there likely are HUGE cultural, socio-economic, ethnic and other difference between the larger population areas of auto dependent states and those less auto dependent. driving behavior likely is another symptom, along with obesity, of the behavior(s) that drive(s) all this.

  • Darin

    The graph’s not flat at all. There are two outliers (Washington D.C. and New York) and the rest of the points (between 80-95% drivers) clearly show a relationship between driving and obesity. Colorado with the lowest obesity rate has the 15th largest rate of commuting by means other than driving which is the 30th percentile which is probably significantly different from the 50th percentile.

  • Allan

    This would be way more obvious on a county-by-county level or anything more granular

  • I brought the data into a Google Fusion Table to make it easy for people to dive into: http://tables.googlelabs.com/DataSource?snapid=67208

    (If you’re new to Google Fusion Tables, there’s a bunch of ways to visualize the data available from the “Visualize” drop-down.)

  • Pulled the data into ManyEyes for tinkering.

  • V

    driving does play a role, I think, but sitting on a bus doesn’t exactly burn calories . . . I think its a combo of suburban sprawl, culture and food in the US that really does it. I’m pretty shocked to see the things/amounts some ppl. eat, and I’m in SF. And Americans (besides new yorkers) seem to think humans are incapable of walking for more than 5 minutes.

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