Today, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “more than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7%) and approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2—19 years are obese.” The reasons are many, but one of the top culprits responsible for expanding our national waistlines is our dependence on cars for almost everything. What can be done within urban areas to increase the opportunities and desire to leave cars behind and opt for walking or biking?
I don't have a magic solution to this problem, but I believe that more people could be encouraged to use bicycles if they felt more secure about leaving them exposed to theft, weather, and other hazards for long periods of time. Schools could offer indoor checkroom services with someone on duty to watch the bikes. Young people would be most likely to use bikes for transportation if they didn't have to worry about leaving them exposed. Good bikes are very expensive these days. Some thieves will just steal parts off bikes if they can't steal the whole bike because the lock is too strong.
I don't believe that riding a bike to and from school or to and from a job is going to help much with the obesity problem. One bag of potato chips or one of those big sodas would take a hundred miles of riding to work off. (But bike riding is very good for the heart.)
Better public transportation would help a lot. They ought to hire more people to clean the cars in order to make them more attractive. They ought to have real police patroling the cars and handing out tickets for misdemeanors such as eating on the bus, playing radios, putting feet on seats, etc. I believe they do this regularly in some European cities, and it keeps people on their best behavior. Then more people would want to ride public transportation, which would lead to more buses and trolleys being put into service, which would mean shorter waits, which would mean eliminating some of the cars.
If there were fewer cars on the streets, more people might also ride their bikes. Riding bikes in some cities is a very risky business. Besides that, there is the weather to contend with. Who wants to ride in the rain or on wet streets?
One of the biggest impediments, I find, to biking and/or walking is the sheer scale of things in the typical American city. For example, to get to the grocery store, one might have to travel 4 miles, and that on dusty, glaring, trafficy roads. Once you get there, there is the difficulty of bringing back several days' groceries for a family of 2, 3, 4, or 5--and don't forget the pets! The logistics of walking or biking for significant chores or routine events is very, very difficult to get around, I find, because of the scale and the massive traffic. Cities just simply were planned for automobile traffic. Biking and walking need cities designed on a whole different scale.
Having said that, cities might advance biking and walking by changing zoning to allow for neighborhood markets that are easily within reach. Cities might redesign public transport systems to provide many neighborhood hubs to which someone in a suit and fragile hairstyle might easily bike or walk, safely store a bycicle, then board a clean, well maintained transport to be driven to work. A city might provide rent-a bikes or borrow-a-bikes at the destination end of the line for getting the last distance to the employer's door.
Whatever is done, it will require redesigning the city to accommodate a new milieu in transportation, a milieu requiring a smaller scale, like pohnpei's Portland example. Moves like these would even create jobs for construction, drivers, bike safety guards, bike and transport cleaning crews (no one in a suit is going to want to ride in a transport that is dirty and stinky when their Lexus or BMW is sitting, beckoning in the garage).
Living near NYC, I realize that it is far less stressful to use public transportation then to try to navigate your own car through traffic. Along the way, one must pay tolls and for parking garages which can be quite expensive. Cities can charge a fee for people driving in every day to work, which may make some people leave the car home. However, that may seem unfair. There can be more car-pool lanes on the highway for two or more individuals. This cuts down on traffic and pollution and speeds along the commute. Perhaps a tax credit could be given during tax time for people who have receipts from using their local public transportation systems.
This would require a tremendous shift in how communities are built and organized. Since the advent of the automobile, we have spread out more and more. The downside, as you mention, is the lack of physical exercise that can result. From a societal perspective, the only way that we will actually "reduce our dependence on cars," as you put it, is if something very dramatic happens, like a tremendous spike in oil/gas prices.
Of course, as individuals we can certainly make the decision to leave our cars in the driveway and hoof it more often. We just aren't going to be able to get everybody to do it unless they have to.
My wife just spent a week in Portland at a conference for how communities can encourage biking. Portland does a number of very interesting things. For example, there are some residential streets that are essentially closed off to car traffic. These streets are used as bike arterials. Where they do cross regular streets, the crossings are very narrow so that the bikes do not have as far to go to cross. The city also is very aggressive about trying to get people to bike. They canvas neighborhoods comprehensively, getting people to respond about what might prevent them from biking and then educating people about possible solutions to their problems.
Promoting biking in a major way will take this kind of serious effort. This makes it at least somewhat unlikely to happen on a large scale in the US.
We have had Zip cars in our community for quite a while now, and they are a quite a success. People who own cars tend to use them for every little thing, but if they have a viable alternative to car ownership, they have a solution for longer trips and are far more likely to walk, bike, or use public transportation. When children grow up in a household in which there is not car ownership, they, too, are more likely to do the same. I did not even learn how to drive until I was over 21 because I had no need to use that means of transportation in my city. I walked or took a bus. My friends did the same. And not a one of us was obese!
Why not give a tax break to individuals who buy bicycles and forgo driving around in their cars all the time. In addition, cities and municipalities should develop and promote more scenic bike and walking paths within their environs. This would help encourage people to take advantage of opportunities to walk and cycle. An education program aimed at everyone, showing the financial and health benefits of walking and cycling is also a good place to start to get people out of their cars.
City authorities, as well as private groups and organizations can promote activities and events such as races, community BBQ's, and such that involve walking and cycling to encourage people to get active and leave their cars at home. Fundraisers that involve walking and cycling and that help not-for-profits/charities are another way to encourage walking and cycling, while benefiting the participants and the community as a whole.