Obesity and infrastructure


Since 2009, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has had a policy on transportation infrastructure, recommending that state and local governments embrace the policies of the National Complete Streets Coalition. If it seems odd that a health agency should take a position on the engineering of our streets, consider how closely the question of how we get from Point A to Point B is tied up with pressing issues of public health.

Our health, it turns out, is the result of myriad small decisions. Should I order the cheeseburger or the salad? Drive to work today or bicycle? Watch that Netflix movie or take an afternoon walk? And to the extent that the design of our communities affects these small decisions, our public expenditures on things like safe sidewalks and bicycle paths play a part in weakening or strengthening the public health.

Some recent surveys have raised the disturbing possibility that our children may be the first generation in many with a life expectancy shorter than that of their parents. Foremost among the culprits behind this decline in lifespan are obesity and its confederates, heart disease and diabetes. And last week in these pages, you read news of the recently completed study by the Rural Scholars, which finds that the children of Martha’s Vineyard are not immune to this national trend.

Peg Regan, who served as principal of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School for nine years, recently completed a two-year stint as Island director of Mass in Motion, a state initiative aimed at changes that enable people to eat healthier and move more. The recent study results on childhood obesity here, she says, were somewhat unexpected: “One assumption we made was that since we don’t have fast food restaurants on Martha’s Vineyard, kids would not have access to that kind of food, and we might in fact have lower BMI [body mass index] averages because of that. But that has just not proven to be true.”

Ms. Regan has worked with the schools to improve the healthy fare being served in lunchrooms across the Island, and the advances on this front have been dramatic. Thanks to new state rules, leadership from the superintendent’s office and cooperation with the Island Grown Initiative, school lunch menus today are far healthier than they were just a decade ago.

But changing habits of physical inactivity has been harder, Ms. Regan admits, because one important part of encouraging new habits is providing the public infrastructure that makes them practical and enjoyable for people in their everyday lives.

And for the past half-century and more, the main focus of our provisions for getting people from one place to another has been that most American of machines, the automobile.

Happily, however, there are signs that this focus is beginning to broaden. Recently, when Skiff Avenue in Vineyard Haven was repaved, a bicycle path was clearly marked along one edge of the street. It’s still a steep climb for cyclists leaving Vineyard Haven for Edgartown, but now it’s far safer, and the only public expense involved was a bit of paint.

The new roundabout in Oak Bluffs is a terrific example of how modern engineering can provide well not only for automobiles but for all users. Navigating the roundabout is a joy now for cyclists and pedestrians, thanks to the islands that provide safe pausing-places halfway across.

During her tenure as director of Mass in Motion, Ms. Regan made the rounds of the Island towns to suggest that they adopt, as bylaw, a Complete Streets ordinance like those already implemented in the Massachusetts towns of Plymouth and Northampton. The bylaw is fairly simple as these things go, stipulating that whenever a town undertakes a road project, it should be designed for the convenience and safety of all users — not just drivers of cars, but also riders of mass transit, pedestrians, cyclists and the disabled. The Complete Streets bylaw doesn’t call for costly, wholesale change, but for an incremental approach that considers all users of our transit infrastructure and provides for them, where feasible, at the most convenient and economical moment — when we’ve already decided to build or rebuild a section of road.

Peg Regan’s efforts to advance local adoption of Complete Streets bylaws were not well received in town halls across the Island, which is too bad. Because when we improve a street to make it accessible for everyone, we transform a barrier to public health into an asset. Every initiative that encourages even a few of us to get out of our cars and choose instead one of the alternatives — be it public transit, bicycling, or walking — is an initiative that advances the public health and improves the quality of life on Martha’s Vineyard.