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City Dwellers Live Longer, Save More by Driving Less
Erica Barnett, 30 Aug 07
Article Photo

New York City, long seen as a mecca of hedonism and self-destructive indulgence, has witnessed a startling transformation over the past few years: life expectancy has increased dramatically to 78.6 years, nine months longer than the life expectancy in the rest of the US. Even more surprisingly, New York City's life expectancy is increasing at a faster rate than in other parts of the country; in 2004 alone, New Yorkers gained five months of life on average, far outpacing the national average increase of a month or two a year.

What accounts for this longevity?

New York City's plummeting homicide rate (down from 2,272 in 1990 to 579 in 2005), which mirrors nationwide crime trends, has little to do with it. Rather, researchers believe that New York City residents may simply be healthier than other Americans, in large part because -- unlike many other Americans -- they walk almost everywhere. As New York Magazine notes,

New York is literally designed to force people to walk, to climb stairs -- and to do it quickly. Driving in the city is maddening, pushing us onto the sidewalks and up and down the stairs to the subways. What's more, our social contract dictates that you should move your ass when you're on the sidewalk, so as not to annoy your fellow walkers.

...[T]he very structure of the city coerces us to exercise far more than people elsewhere in the U.S., in a way that is strongly correlated with a far-better life expectancy. Every city block doubles as a racewalking track, every subway station, a StairMaster. Seen this way, the whole city looks like a massive exercise machine dedicated to improving our health while we run errands.

The city as a massive gym? It's not as implausible as it sounds. As improved sanitation, better health care and health standards, and more stringent pollution controls have made cities healthier places to live overall, cities have become places where walking is easy and pleasant -- often more so than driving. And the research suggests that the more you walk, the healthier you are.

Across the country from New York, the residents of Portland, Oregon have gotten a different benefit from driving less. According to a new report from the group CEOs for Cities, Portlanders save an estimated $2.6 billion a year, or about three percent of the Portland region's annual economic output, because they drive 20 percent fewer miles than other US residents and thus spend less on cars and fuel.

Seen in vehicle miles traveled, the number is even more staggering: 100 million fewer miles traveled every year than the average US resident. The report estimates the economic value of those miles at $1.5 billion. Most of those savings get spent locally on housing, entertainment and food.

Not only do Portland residents walk more (presumably producing the same health benefits as it does in New York), they also live in compact communities, reducing the distance between work and home and shortening auto as well as mass transit commutes. And they enjoy very pleasant mass transit system, waiting in covered transit stops with monitors that indicate when the next train is coming, instead of what riders endure in many other cities: waiting in the weather for buses that may or may not come on time.

Image: flickr/moriza

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Comments

Please note that this makes no sense as written: "100 million fewer miles traveled every year than the average US resident."
For this to be true, the average US resident would have to travel *over* 100 million miles annually.
Is this the average of all US residents?
I would also like to point out, much as I love you all, that this is based on an article, not a scientific study... the link between urban design and public health is still tenuous, though many do believe it exists.


Posted by: justus on 30 Aug 07

in 2004 alone, New Yorkers gained five months of life on average

Wow... that means that they effectively only aged 7 months in that year (as far as dying is concerned). A bit more than double that and you'll start aging backwards!


Posted by: sabik on 30 Aug 07

I think it is generally a good idea to design public spaces with human powered transportation (walking, cycling, etc.) in mind, but how do we do that without unduly hampering the mobility of disabled and elderly segments of the population? Without taking this into account we would be making the already able-bodied more fit, and marginalizing those already at a disadvantage.


Posted by: Luc Deckinga on 31 Aug 07

Erica, while I thought that part of the article was interesting, the conclusion of the article explains that New York may have a longer life expectancy because people who are thinner and more fit *before they live in NY* tend to move there. It's more about social grouping than about the city as gym (and I am absolutely certain the same thing is true about Portland!). Though lord knows I walk a whole hell of a lot more there than in Eugene.


Posted by: Suzi on 31 Aug 07

Automobile centered settlements disable everyone. People in wheel chairs frequently have to risk travel in automobile thoroughfares because where sidewalks exist at all, parked cars often block them. Roads with several lanes and fast moving traffic stand between pedestrians and their destinations. The spread out developments built to accomodate space hungry automobiles leave almost all occupants unable to use their bodies as designed and dependant on motorized mobility.

A nice article. I'll note an apparent error. According to the CEOs for Cities report, Portlanders spend 100 million fewer hours per year traveling. (2.88 billion fewer miles).


Posted by: bill on 1 Sep 07

This is a wonderful article. I call it vindication. For years I have been trying to encourage people to take the "free" exercise opportunies that are available in the city. I am considered a crackpot by the majority of Americans because I try to walk most places. All my life I have been told how wrong I am. Naturally, I am slim and most of my friends are obese or very near so. Whenever they ask me how I stay thin they proceed to tell me why I am wrong, after my explantion. It is mind numbing to hear all the excuses about how they cannot change even one little thing in their lives in order to gain basic health. The gift of life is wasted on people like that. They don't even appreciate it. They are all on daily medications. It is absurd. Walking cures most of the illnesses that Americans have.


Posted by: David on 4 Sep 07

I have to agree with suzi, above -- it's an interesting magazine article, but this blog post misrepresents it by implying that the "walking more" argument is the clear main factor. The article mentions a variety of factors that can disproportionately affect overall life expectancy -- lower murder rate, lower AIDS death rate, lower infant mortality rate, fewer drug-related deaths -- and also notes that the higher longevity effect applies to US cities in general, not just New York (though it seems that New York is in the lead).


Posted by: Peter Erwin on 5 Sep 07

Let's not also forget the high level of medical care in a city like New York.


Posted by: Eric Prescott on 5 Sep 07

What about the health hazards of walking alongside all of those cars' fumes? What about coming home to wash my face and my towel is all black? My skin and lungs are absorbing many more toxins here in New York than out there in the car-laden countryside. I don't think the impacts of walking in this city have been fully explored or studied. After living in a place without cars for two years (venice, italy) I came to New York and found myself with sore throats for several weeks while residing in Manhattan. I feel toxic everyday I step out onto those manhattan sidewalks....


Posted by: Raven on 11 Sep 07

What about the health hazards of walking alongside all of those cars' fumes? What about coming home to wash my face and my towel is all black? My skin and lungs are absorbing many more toxins here in New York than out there in the car-laden countryside. I don't think the impacts of walking in this city have been fully explored or studied. After living in a place without cars for two years (venice, italy) I came to New York and found myself with sore throats for several weeks while residing in Manhattan. I feel toxic everyday I step out onto those manhattan sidewalks....


Posted by: Raven on 11 Sep 07



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