Obesity and the Automobile (and the bicycle)

Several findings about the relationship between obesity, the automobile, and the bicycle …..

1)  As Americans have been getting obese, so have automobiles.

Interesting that as we as a nation are getting bigger, our automobiles are keeping right up with us … 

Example:  the first VW Golf (aka Jetta and Rabbit) weighed in at approximately 1808 lbs, but the Mk2 version (built until 1991) added another 265 pounds.   Later versions such as the MK4 (2005) had increased weight to 2771 lbs, while the latest version, the Mk6 (2009) weighs in at 2802 lbs.  That’s almost 1,000 lbs of gain, or a 64% weight gain.

Another example:  The first Ford Escort (1967) weighed in at 1640 lbs.  The 1980 Escort weighed in at 1830 lbs.   The 1992 version (last to be called Escort, next generation called the Focus) weighed in at 2,222lbs.  The nextgen Escort/Focus for 2010 — 2709 lbs in it’s lightest form.

What are the reasons for the weight gain?  I can think of a few reasons (e.g.  bigger engines, added refinements) but perhaps it’s also because the average American is getting bigger too — it’s easier for bigger Americans to get in and out of bigger cars …………

2)  The more we weigh, the more we pay (in gasoline)

A 2009 research paper  (here) examined the link between  the prevalence of obesity and vehicle demand in the United States. Exploring annual sales data of new passenger vehicles at the model level in 48 U.S. counties from 1999 to 2005,  they found that a 10 percentage point increase in the rate of overweight and obesity reduces the average MPG of new vehicles demanded by 2.5 percent: an effect that requires a 30 cent increase in gasoline prices to counteract.

3)  In China, as automobile ownership increases, so does obesity.

This older (2002) article took advantage of looking at China’s fast-growing automobile ownership, where it was replacing traditional methods of transportation (walking, cycling).  It showed the odds were 80% higher for the man or women who owned a car to be obese vs. someone who did not own a car.

Of course, it’s not exclusively the automobile’s fault that we are so overweight.   Many studies point to our cost of food being so cheap, the types of high-fat, high-caloric foods now readily available  (many researchers believe that it’s actually cheaper, in our fast-food society, to eat a high-fat, high-calorie diet than it is to stay slim), and the boom in passive activity choices (watching TV, playing video games, Internet surfing) — all are contributors.

4)  Those who walk and bicycle more aren’t as fat (Duh!!)

2008 study in the Journal of  Physical Activity and Health was designed to examine the relationship between active transportation (defined as the percentage of trips taken by walking, bicycling, and public transit) and obesity rates.  Walking and bicycling are far more common in European countries than in the United States, Australia, and Canada.   What they found should not be surprising to anyone:  active transportation is inversely related to obesity in these countries.  Although the results do not prove causality (cause and effect) , they suggest that active transportation could be one of the factors that explain international differences in obesity rates.

20 replies
  1. JAT in Seattle
    JAT in Seattle says:

    I think this posting should have been titled “Your ass looks fat in that car!”

    I’m sure these are questions that are worth thinking about, but you say (final paragraph) that the results do not prove causality, yet you phrase things, in the manner of a true believer, as if they do, and it feels spurious.

    For instance at point two you summarize the study by saying “a 10 percentage point increase in the rate of overweight and obesity reduces the average MPG of new vehicles demanded by 2.5 percent.” Obesity does not reduce mileage (well other than my poor car struggling to haul my girthfulness around…) an increase in obesity might be correlated with a decrease in mileage, but it’s not the cause.

    (I’ll concede that fatter people probably prefer buying vehicles with more cabin room, and those vehicles are likely to get worse mileage, as possibly illustrated by the SUV boom, but if that’s what you mean or what the study says, then say that.)

    I had a ’76 Rabbit, and a friend of mine just bought a new Jetta. My car was a hollow tinny box; his car is solid and passes a myriad of crash tests mine never would have. Bigger engine, more refinements, sure, but by naming those the implication is that the evolution of car disign is driven solely by the frivolous consumer quest for power and comfort, and I think that’s simplistic, and I don’t think such approaches necessarily forward the pro-cycling agenda.

  2. Kevin Love
    Kevin Love says:

    In my opinion, one factor fueling (pun intended) the SUV/big motor vehicle boom was cheap gasoline prices.

    The gas price spike in 2008 led to a plunge in SUV sales and the bankruptcy of many companies, such as General Motors, that were dependent upon these vehicles.

    European and Asian countries where gas prices are right now in the range of $8-10 per gallon have small cars and a high bicycle mode share.

    In Canada, where gas is currently in the $5-6 range, the current municipal election campaign in Toronto has bicycle policy as a hot topic. Front page issues have ranged from bike lanes to bike parking to a new Bixi-style bike sharing program. Needless to say, I will not be voting for the anti-bike candidate.

  3. Laura M
    Laura M says:

    I bet if we compared the fullsize cars of yesteryear with the fullsize cars of today, they’re likely lighter or the same. My parents had a 66 Pontiac Catalina and that thing was the true definition of a land barge.

  4. alexcopeland
    alexcopeland says:

    Andrew, Great article. I particularly like the data from china. I think it is as good as proof about obesity’s connection to cars. The fact is that cars promote a sedentary lifestyle. How many times have you seen people driving around and around a parking lot looking for space closer to the door because they didn’t want to walk to far? How many times have you done it yourself? I know I have been guilty of it. Cars give us the “luxury” of being slothful.

    Also as a side note JAT, yeah it is simplistic. Of course “the evolution of car design is driven solely by the frivolous consumer quest for power and comfort.” What else would drive design? Have you seen any car commercials lately?


  5. Keri
    Keri says:

    I bet if you followed the midday traffic patterns around the Koger Center, the cars would be moving between the office buildings and the many restaurants within 1/2 mile.

    We place no value on walking — all the roads in the Koger Center were built entirely without sidewalks! So, it’s not just the car, it’s the physical environment built around the car.

    BTW, every afternoon, I see numerous Lynx passengers walking to bus stops and standing in the grass along Lawton. It’s disgraceful, Orlando, really.

    • Eric
      Eric says:

      Work began on General Rees yesterday.
      Right now they are building sidewalks on the Orlando side of the road on the ROW by the Army Reserve Center (where there is a bus stop) and from the parking lots to Glenridge.

      Something went wrong though, or they found something odd. About a dozen workers and one guy from Orlando, peering in a hole for a long time right there at the corner of Corrine and GR. I didn’t get close enough to look.

      Retrofitting is a drag.

  6. Carlos
    Carlos says:

    I’ve always had a theory about this. It goes back to when I used to own a Ball Python in college. Doing research on them, I found that depending on the size cage you have, some snakes, including the python, will grow only as big as the cage. In a joking way, I started to relate this to people who drive large SUV’s. They need to fill all that extra space, so they gain more weight. But on the other side, as ToddBS noted, I do see bigger people in smaller cars and smaller people in bigger cars, but could imagine it’s much more comfortable for a bigger person to be in a large car.

  7. Rob
    Rob says:

    I read an article by Peter Egan in Road & track magazine where he bought one of those massive Catillacs from the sixties. I think it was 14 feet long, with big fins on the back. People asked him all the time what that big thing weighed. The fact of the matter was it weighed less than a full size SUV of today.

  8. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    Our cars were much heavier in the 1950s and 60s than today, and people were much thinner.

    While I think sedentary lifestyles are partly to blame, everything I’ve been reading about our food industry leads me to believe the problem is primarily our diet. Not “how much,” but “what kind?”

    Too much processed food, which contains too much sugar and too much bad fat. Read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan.

  9. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    I owned a 1984 VW Rabbit GTi and I loved it dearly, but it really had more in common with a go-kart than a modern auto. The 1740lb curb weight reflected a lack of many safety features built into modern cars. The body became really flimsy and flexible after so many miles, and the doors were about two inches thick. It had no power steering, and it had a manual transmission. There was no sound dampening material in the unibody, so it was very difficult to hear music or passengers on the highway (although at highway speeds the motor sounded awesome.)

    At any rate, even though the Mk6 weighs 1,000 pounds more, it is still a compact car and that’s worth noting. I think we should look at not the weight increases of particular models, but maybe the proportion of compact cars to enormous cars. There were only a couple SUV’s on the market in the early 80’s, like the Suburban and some Jeeps etc, so I’d be interested to know what the overall ratio of compact cars in the fleet were then vs. now to get a clear picture of our auto obesity.

  10. Wayne Pein
    Wayne Pein says:

    Weight, obviously, matters in mpg. So if YOU weigh more, the car’s mpg suffers, just as a bicyclist’s “mpg” suffers when he gains weight or carries extra cargo.

    “The average American is now 23 pounds overweight and collectively we are 4.6 billion pounds overweight.”

    I’d hate to be carrying an extra 23 pounds of fat up the 10%+ grades here in Chapel Hill, NC!

    Consider the national fuel use and CO2/pollution penalty of hauling that lard around as many miles as Americans drive, fly, and otherwise motor. I suppose it COULD be calculated with a little effort. For comparison, a full coal train weighing a mere 28 million pounds uses multiple huge diesel engines.

    Similarly, the calories in all that fat could be converted to a lot of free bicycling miles!

    Given the short distances and low speeds Europeans typically bike commute on typically flat ground, they are not getting significant exercise nor expending significant calories. Bicycling is very efficient. That said, some exercise is better than no exercise. It is likely that even a small amount of bicycling engenders other positive behaviors that result in less obesity.

    • Keri
      Keri says:

      Wayne, your comment makes me think about the endorphins created by exercise as well as by human interaction. More than the calories burned, there is an overall sense of well-being gained from using human-powered transportation.

      I know that I personally have better eating habits when I feel a sense of well-being vs feeling down or stressed.

      Being sedentary brings me down physically and emotionally. Using a car often increases my stress. Whereas using a bike brings my system up and usually decreases my stress.

      • Rodney
        Rodney says:

        Don’t forget the tranquility one may feel from riding. A bicycle is the only vehicle I know of where the driver can be fully immersed in situational awareness and the ride itself.

    • Laura M
      Laura M says:

      Excellent points Wayne and Keri. We were much more active just a generation ago, mostly because we walked more. Nowadays, people will drive to a park in order to get their 30 minutes of exercise in by walking. I’ve always found that incredibly ironic.

      I’m obese due to about 10 yrs of a mostly sedentery lifestyle. Now that I work downtown, I find that even though I’m still overweight, I’m much more active and have more energy. My car sits in the driveway most days.

      I’ve also joined the Y and am exercising regularly. I’ve got a lot of years of buildup to get rid of, I didn’t get here by accident, so an intervention was necessary, LOL. Honestly, I’m not so much worried about my size anymore, though being smaller would be way more comfortable, I’m just glad to be moving these days rather than driving everywhere and doing nothing.

      It really does wear on you mentally and I think our society’s collective mental malaise is likely a direct result of our lack of physical activity. Heck, just weeding your garden can be a bit of a workout. Bending, stooping, sweating, keeps the joints oiled and moving.

  11. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    I like to point out that bicycling is not a sole solution for any one problem, but it is a partial solution for a whole host of problems. That is bicycling’s strength … and its weakness.

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