How much exercise is needed to burn off food?

It’s often pointed out that residents of the inner city, on average, are less obese than residents of the outer suburbs. Since the inner city is denser, more walkable and has much better public transport access than any other part of the metropolitan area, the conclusion seems obvious to many – a key strategy to address obesity should be to encourage higher dwelling densities and better public transport in the suburbs, especially the newer, fringe areas.

The flaw in this thinking is it fails to observe that the inner city – defined roughly as the area within 5 km of the CBD – is a different world. Relative to the suburbs, the inner city has an emphatic over-representation of younger, well educated and affluent residents with fewer dependents. The proportion of the population made up of young singles is three times that of the metropolitan area as a whole and there are twice as many young couples without children.

These are the sorts of people who on average are slimmer because they’re younger, who are of an age where appearance is enormously important, and who are well educated enough to know about nutrition and eschew fast food. They can afford to buy high quality fruit and vegetables and pay for gym memberships. Because they’re more affluent, they have fewer children on average and hence less need for a car.

They live in smaller dwellings so they can be near the CBD and take advantage of its enormous and unparalleled concentration of high-paying professional jobs, its matchless endowment of cultural attractions and its huge and diverse range of social and entertainment opportunities. There’s no other concentration of activity within the metropolitan area that comes even close to the richness of what the inner city offers.

Because they live at higher density, driving is too hard for many trips – roads are congested and parking costs range from expensive to impossible. So residents often walk or use public transport instead. That’s O.K., because they happen to live in that transit-rich, small and unique geographical area where every train line and tram line in the entire metropolitan area – the result of 130 years of construction and at least one spectacular land boom – converges.

So population density and access to public transport are not the underlying forces driving this group’s superior average BMI. Rather, it’s a combination of the small but highly specialised group who can afford to live there, on the one hand, and the special characteristics of the area, particularly the presence of the CBD, on the other.

It’s pie in the sky to imagine the sheer scale and complexity of the highly specialised attributes offered by the inner city could be replicated in the suburbs – much less the outer suburbs – within the foreseeable future. The inner city is focussed on the CBD and in almost every city in the world, the number of jobs in the city centre is an order of magnitude larger than any suburban centre (Atlanta is possibly the sole exception). In Australia, the centre offers the cream of corporate jobs.

The importance of proximity to the CBD in explaining the special character of the inner city is demonstrated by the fact walking’s share of work trips plummets from 13% in the inner city to just 2% immediately one locates in the adjacent inner suburbs. This share is only marginally better than the outer suburbs.

Will building at higher densities and providing better public transport in the outer suburbs significantly lower the incidence of obesity? Not likely. Even if all outer suburban dwellings were townhouses, the incentive to walk is much lower if there’s no CBD, cultural precinct, river, beach, historic buildings, hundreds of cafes, and hundreds of thousands of jobs to walk to. Perhaps most importantly, the outer suburbs don’t have the constraints on driving and parking that often make walking or public transport a superior alternative in the inner city.

And outer suburban residents overwhelmingly work at dispersed locations where car travel is a much superior option to any realistically feasible level of public transport service. There are also many more workers in the suburbs who really do need their car for work and who routinely travel to different work places each week e.g. tradies. There are many more families with young children who won’t forgo the convenience of a car for tasks like shopping. There’re probably more limited household budgets too, making it worthwhile to travel to large discount stores rather than shop within walking distance of home. And then there are differences in socioeconomic status which could mean there are more people who will eat fast food no matter what mode of travel they use.

I don’t doubt that any individual outer suburban resident who chose to take public transport over driving would get more exercise, presumably with consequent health benefits. But that’s a personal choice for individual travellers. From a policy perspective we should be concerned about how many residents are likely to make this choice and what ratio of benefits to costs it will yield relative to other non-transport options. To do that we need to understand the underlying drivers of obesity and not be taken in by the symptoms.

I suspect it’s far more cost-effective to focus on what goes in our mouths – after all, it takes an hour and a half of walking to burn off the calories from one Big Mac. I also wonder what the risks are in making health a headline objective of transport policy. These are issues for another day, although I’ve touched on them before (e.g. here, here, and here).