Elizabeth Lara, MCT
Two cyclists make their way along morning traffic from Fort Lee, New Jersey, via the George Washington Bridge and into New York City, Septembr 1, 2010.

HACKENSACK, N.J. — A Rutgers transportation expert says the United States could solve part of its obesity problem by making it easier for people to bike or walk where they need to go.

John Pucher analyzed data from 15 countries, 50 states and 47 of the nation's largest cities for a relationship between "active travel" — the kind that doesn't rely upon motorized vehicles — and health.

Not surprisingly, he found that communities where people cycle and walk more in daily life have less obesity and diabetes than those where people rely on cars to get around. That was true at all three geographic levels, he said in a study called "Walking and Cycling to Health: A Comparative Analysis of City, State and International Data."

The study focused on travel to work and to do errands, not recreational bike-riding or walking. In some European countries, such non-recreational trips are three to five times more common than they are in the United States, the study found.

In the Netherlands, Switzerland and Spain, for example, people bike, walk or use mass transit for nearly half of all their trips. "Women and men, old and young, men in suits, they're all biking," said Pucher. "They even deliver the mail by bike."

They also have the lowest rates of obesity — just 8 percent in each of those three countries.

In the United States, on the other hand, Americans cycle, walk or use mass transit for 11 percent of trips, and in many states far less than that. (Mass-transit use is considered "active travel" because 95 percent of such trips involve walking or biking to or from the station.) And obesity rates in the U.S. average 26 percent, more than three times higher than in the European countries studied.

Among the 50 states, Pucher said, "The very highest levels of obesity are found in exactly those states that have the lowest level of biking, walking and public-transit use." Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee lead the nation in obesity, at 31 to 33 percent, and lag in walking and cycling, at 1.4 to 2.3 percent of all trips.

And the single biggest trend in American travel behavior over the past decade, he notes, is the sharp decline in the number of children walking and biking to school, which has occurred at a time when obesity rates among children have skyrocketed.

Proving cause and effect is impossible, "but you have this interesting relationship," said Pucher, a professor at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.

Pucher lives his research: He doesn't own a car. A resident of Highland Park, he commutes across the Albany Street bridge to the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick by bike five months of the year and on foot the rest of the time. "Yes, even in Central Jersey it is possible to be car-free," he said. "But it's not easy!"

New Jersey residents, in fact, are among the least likely in the United States to bike to work: just 0.3 percent of commuting trips are by bike, compared with the national average of 0.5 percent, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But more people walk to work — 3.2 percent — than the national average, perhaps because of the many cities and small towns. More than 60 percent of New Jersey's population is overweight and 24 percent obese.

Ron Bienstock of Fair Lawn, N.J., who rides to his Hackensack, N.J., law office two or three days a week during good weather, is one of the few bikers.

He carries his work clothes in a backpack and takes roughly double the time by bike that it would take by car. At night, he said, "I try to be like a movable Christmas tree, with all the lights I keep on." Besides flashing lights and a headlight on his bike, he wears a reflective jacket and reflective patches on his pack.

Not a single road on any of his routes has a bike lane. Crossing Route 17 has become easier, he said, following the completion of bridge repairs on Century Road. But he never sees another bike commuter.

Danger from motorists a problem

Public health experts increasingly are teaming up with transportation planners to examine the health implications of transit choices. Two of the four authors of the "Walking and Cycling" study are transportation planners, one is an obesity researcher and the other is a public-health specialist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is to be published in October in the American Journal of Public Health.

The key to promoting cycling and walking as a daily part of the routine is to make it safe, convenient and attractive, the study concluded.

The rate of pedestrian and cyclist death and injury in the United States is many times higher than it is in European countries, with 33.5 cyclists and 13.7 pedestrians injured per 100 million kilometers traveled in the United States, compared with 1.6 and 1.3 in the Netherlands. In New Jersey, 157 pedestrians were killed in 2009, an increase of 15 percent over the previous year. Bergen County had 12 pedestrian deaths and Passaic County had five.

Women are especially concerned about safety, Pucher said, and their reluctance to bike to work reflects that. More than 85 percent of the bike commutes in New Jersey are by male bikers. Reducing car speeds and using street design to calm traffic, as well as additional restrictions on car use and parking, would encourage more active travel, the study said.

Portland, Ore., is the American city with the highest portion of trips made by bike, Pucher found. The city quadrupled the miles of public bikeways between 1990 and 2008, and saw a fivefold increase in bike trips, to 6.2 percent of the total. Using a bike to get around is trendy there, a sign of belonging to a certain culture.

Portland's transformation makes him optimistic, Pucher says: "Even in cities that are very car-oriented and have absolutely no history of biking, you can — through changes of public policy — produce a big increase in cycling. That is very hopeful for New Jersey."

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.