Levels of obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes are lower in cities where a higher percentage of commuters bicycle or walk to work, and cities where drivers get used to sharing the road with bikers and walkers generally have lower rates of pedestrian and bike fatalities.
Those are among the findings of a report released Wednesday that is based on data from 2011 and 2012, from the Alliance for Biking and Walking. The Washington, D.C.-based non-profit's Benchmarking Report biennially documents bicycling and walking trends in all 50 states, in the nation's 50 most populous cities and in 17 mid-sized cities.
They found that Memphis (36.8%) and Detroit (33%) have the highest levels of obesity among large cities and also some of the lowest bicycling and walking rates – 2.1% for Memphis and 3.4% for Detroit. Conversely, San Francisco and Oakland had the lowest combined obesity rate at 18.6% and above-average walking and biking rates, 13.1% for San Francisco and 6.7% for Oakland.
However, the trend didn't hold true for all cities: New Orleans, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Chicago are among the top 15 cities for walking and biking commuters but also have above-average obesity rates.
Mississippi and Alabama have the highest statewide levels of both high blood pressure and diabetes; they also have bicycling and walking levels below the national average, the Alliance report says.
"It's not surprising to see that we have a correlation between public health and levels of biking and walking," said Jeffrey Miller, president and CEO of the Alliance for Biking and Walking. "Still, it's good to have the data. It's a very positive thing that we need to highlight."
The report dispels the notion that more bicyclists and pedestrians on the roads lead to more crash deaths involving bikers and walkers. It finds that cities and states that have higher biking and walking rates also have lower fatality rates for bikers and walkers than cities where fewer people bike and walk.
For example, San Francisco, Portland and Washington, D.C., have some of the nation's lowest annual bicyclist fatality rates, at 0.9, 1.1 and 1.1 deaths per 10,000 daily bike commuters, respectively. Detroit and Memphis had some of the highest bicyclist fatality rates, at 39.8 and 36 bicyclists killed per 10,000 daily bike commuters, respectively.
Among states, those "with higher pedestrian commuting rates have lower overall pedestrian fatality rates and vice versa," the report says.
Nationally, bikers and walkers, who comprise 11.4% of all trips, account for 14.9% of all highway fatalities.
The Alliance report finds that while biking and walking as a percentage of overall trips is gradually increasing, it's still very small.
Just 1% of all trips taken in the USA are by bicycle and 10.4% are on foot. Among commuters, 0.6% bike to work and 2.8% walk; the numbers are a little higher in large cities, where 1% bike to work and 5% walk.
Miller says federal spending on bicycling and walking projects is disproportionately low, with just 2.1% of federal transportation dollars going to such projects.