Can Walking or Biking to Work Really Make a Difference? Compact Development, Observed Commuter Choice and Body Mass Index
Photo taken outside the DC Convention Center.
"Can Walking or Biking to Work Really Make a Difference? Compact Development, Observed Commuter Choice and Body Mass Index," PLoS One online journal
Promoting active commuting is viewed as one strategy to increase physical activity and improve the energy balance of more sedentary individuals thereby improving health outcomes. However, the potential effectiveness of promotion policies may be seriously undermined by the endogenous choice of commute mode. Policy to promote active commuting will be most effective if it can be demonstrated that 1) those in compact cities do not necessarily have a preference for more physical activity, and 2) that current active commuting is not explained by unobserved characteristics that may be the true source of a lower body mass index (BMI).Methods
Daily time-use diaries are used in combination with geographical characteristics of where respondents live and work to test 1) whether residents of more compact settlements are characterized by higher activity levels; and 2) whether residents of more compact settlements are more likely to bike or walk to work. An endogenous treatment model of active commuting allows testing whether reductions in BMI associated with walking or biking to work are in fact attributable to that activity or are more strongly associated with unobserved characteristics of these active commuters.Results
The analysis of general activity levels confirms that residents of more compact cities do not expend more energy than residents of more sprawling cities, indicating that those in compact cities do not necessarily have a preference for more physical activity. The endogenous treatment model is consistent with walking or biking to work having an independent effect on BMI, as unobserved factors that contribute to a higher likelihood of active commuting are not associated with lower BMI.Conclusions
Despite evidence that more compact settlement patterns enable active commuting, only a small share of workers in these areas choose to walk or bike to work. In general, the activity level of residents in more compact cities and residents in more sprawling areas is very similar. But, there is a robust association between active commuting and lower body mass index that is not explained by unobserved attributes or preferences suggests that policies to promote active commuting may be effective. In particular, active commuting has a greater effect on BMI. Consequently, compact settlement appears to be an effective infrastructure for promoting more active lifestyles. The policy challenge is finding ways to ensure that this infrastructure is more widely utilized.