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Fat Adelaide needs to get on its bike

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As debate about cycling lanes in the city heats up, David Washington examines the link between our heavy reliance on cars and the poor health of the population.

In an attempt to escape the endless cyclists versus motorists debate, Lord Mayor Stephen Yarwood had changed his rhetoric about the need for more bike infrastructure in the city.

Instead of arguing from a systemic transport perspective, he’s started debating his push for cycling from a health perspective.

In a robust interview on the ABC last week about his council’s controversial bike lanes on Frome Street, he said obesity was costing South Australian businesses $300 million and encouraging more cyclists onto the roads would improve public health.

“Eighty per cent of South Australians own bicycles. We’d love them to polish them up, get them out, ride them. They’d be healthier, they’d be happier,” he told ABC radio.

He’s facing opposition, including from within. Councillor Mark Hamilton, widely tipped to be a lord mayoral candidate at this year’s local government election, has developed a manifesto to encourage more car use in the city, as well as scrap bus lanes and put a moratorium on bike lanes. He has been scathing about the separated Frome Street bike lanes.

InDaily has examined the evidence and has found that Adelaide’s low levels of “active transport” – walking, cycling and public transport – could well be one reason why we have been declared the fattest city in Australia.

How fat are we?

Relatively speaking, very fat.

The Adelaide’s Best City website – put together by local company ipData – shows in graphic style how bad things have become.

Last year the Heart Foundation ranked South Australia as the fattest state, with the highest proportion of overweight or obese people aged 18 years and over. The foundation research also highlighted the fact that an above average 67.9 per cent of us complete little or no exercise and nearly a quarter of us suffer from high blood pressure.

How does public transport and cycling help?

“Active transport” is jargon for public transport, walking and cycling – and there is evidence that it has a significant impact on health.

In 2002, the British Medical Association was so worried about increased car use and its impact on health that it recommended to government that it establish “health derived national motor traffic reduction targets” and a “traffic reduction unit”. It even wanted to remove tax concessions on company cars.

In Australia, the National Heart Foundation has been making so far futile calls for government action.

Last year, it called for walking, cycling and public transport to be “prioritized and funded to curb the levels of physical inactivity killing Australians”.

“Prioritising active transport, rather than cars, will help address the health and obesity crisis we are facing due to the lack of physical activity,” said Dr Robert Grenfell, Director of Cardiovascular Health at the Heart Foundation.

“One of the easiest ways for people to get their recommended 30 minutes of physical activity is to build it into daily routines such as commuting between home and work or home and school.”

How does Adelaide rank on “active transport”?

On public transport use – we’re very poor.

The Best Australian Cities website ranks Adelaide last for projected growth in urban public transport.

We also have the lowest number of people who walk to work.

The percentage of people using public transport to go to work is lower than Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, with Perth catching up quickly.

Only Sydney has a worse cycling participation rate than Adelaide.

InDaily has reported previously an RMIT University analysis of Census data from 1976 to 2011 which shows that over this period Adelaide suffered the largest decline in public transport usage, and the largest increase in car use, of any mainland capital, apart from Melbourne – but without the turnaround that Melbourne has experienced since 1996.

The stats show fewer people walked or cycled to walk in 2011 than did in 1976. More than 82 per cent travelled to work by car in 2011, compared to 75 per cent in 1976. And, back then, 13 per cent were passengers in cars: in 2011, only 6 per cent of us were passengers.

The most concerning aspect of the analysis is that Adelaide has missed out on the public transport revival that, after years of decline, began in most Australian states in 1996 and increased in pace from 2006.

What’s the connection?

A study by the NSW Health researchers found there was a clear link between high levels of private car use and chronic health problems.

The paper argues that high car use – and low “active transport” use – is part of an “obesogenic” environment.

In other words, transport patterns such as those seen in Adelaide are making us fat and unhealthy.

The researchers quote a 2000 study published in the Medical Journal of Australia which concluded that: “Since 1980, increasing levels of obesity can be correlated with increasing car reliance.”

And this: “In a city built for cars, driving can be easy, quick and convenient, and allows for great personal freedom. Yet car dependence has led to decreased physical activity and air pollution.”

The Heart Foundation agrees.

“We’ve become addicted to our cars and forgotten how to use our legs,” the foundation’s Robert Grenfell says.

Locally, the Heart Foundation’s SA CEO Dr Amanda Rischbieth says research has shown that “how we design and build places where we live has a profound influence on our health”.

“Poor planning of neighbourhoods can leave residents disconnected from surrounding suburbs, without social services or access to fresh foods, with unsafe walking and cycling routes and limited transport options,” she says.

The evidence seems clear; but does Adelaide love its cars more than it cares about its health? Join the discussion below.

READ MORE: Frome St: The road to nowhere

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