It was 11 AM in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, when suddenly I realized I lost my ATM card. I was traveling alone, knew absolutely nobody, was scheduled to leave in 12 hours, and needed an efficient way to get all over the city to find my card … so I rented a bike. It was an ugly thing – reminiscent of what the evil lady in The Wizard of Oz rides when she bikes off with Toto – and traffic in Southeast Asia can feel like pandemonium. I flirted with death on that day more times than I should admit in case my mother is reading.
That happened in 2011. For almost 15 years – 1999 through Summer 2013 – it was the only time I rode a bicycle.
Recently, I was interviewed for an article on active transportation. The article was part of a series of active transportation, published by the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living, where I work. Today I commute actively every day, including by bike on a regular basis. I don’t own a car and get around entirely by bike, foot, and public transit. On paper, I’m the poster child for active transportation.
As I said in the interview, I gave up driving in 2013 because extraordinary life circumstances forced me into it. Not because it was healthy. If you had suggested in early 2013 that I try biking more to increase my physical activity and lower my risk of chronic disease, I would’ve laughed and said, “Look, I’m not a biker. I only bike when I’m broke without an ATM card in the capital of a non-English-speaking country where I know less than zero people. If I started biking in Austin every day, I’d probably be killed by a crazy driver tomorrow.”
For the record, I stand by that statement about crazy Austin drivers. They treat pedestrians like speed bumps here; I punch at least one car per week because of it. (Hmm, a public health professor probably shouldn’t publicly admit that he practices violence. Moving on …)
Nonetheless, I started biking everywhere in late 2013. I made a major lifestyle change … but only because of a major, unusual life event. My particular circumstance was unusual, but that general principle is very common. When you hear from people who make dramatic lifestyle changes, it’s usually because of a major life event. Not because someone told them it might, possibly, slightly lower their risk of chronic disease in 40 years.
That’s the reality that most health professionals don’t like to face – health doesn’t motivate people.
Another reality that health professionals don’t like to admit – we suck at changing people’s behavior.
I mean … we reeeeeeeally suck at it. We constantly tell people that behaviors like active transportation are healthy, yet we’re unable to change their behavior. Notice a pattern?
“Health” isn’t the incentive that speaks to people, neither citizens nor policymakers. Do I get more physical activity by biking? Definitely. Is it healthy? Yes. Do I enjoy active commuting? Absolutely! I just don’t enjoy it because it’s healthy. I enjoy it for many other reasons:
- It’s fast. If I bike home during rush hour, I pass at least 100 cars on the way.
- It’s cheap. I don’t pay for gas, parking, or insurance.
- It’s safe (though only because I’m lucky to have a route with dedicated bike lanes.)
- It’s fun! Call me diabolical, but I can’t help laughing as I’m flying by cars during rush hour, feeling the wind in my face, while everyone else is stuck in gridlock.
Time – Money – Safety – Fun. That’s why I actively commute now. Not chronic disease prevention.
Health benefits are great. But if we’re serious about increasing physical activity, we need policies, programs, and structural changes that create incentives other than health:
- Multi-modal transit systems to make active transportation a faster option. The more choices you have, the more efficient active transportation becomes.
- Urban/worksite policies that make active transportation a cheaper option (e.g., discounted public transit fare; dedicate less space to parking facilities)
- Communities with more bike lanes, sidewalks, and crosswalks so people feel safer
- Campaigns that emphasize being “green” – i.e. focus on environmental benefits of active transportation
These approaches have two things in common: 1) they may increase physical activity, and 2) even if they don’t, they have some other benefit that matters to people. Furthermore, if implemented properly, they have a better chance of benefiting high- and low-income communities equally. Currently, in cities like Austin, active transportation is only possible to a privileged few like myself.
I’ve grown to believe that public health policy success is all about framing. If we tell people that the policies and urban design elements I listed above will promote public health, we’re doomed to fail. If we tell people these policies will save time, money, stress, or the planet, we have a much better chance of success.
Renting a bike on that day in Laos was definitely good for me. Why? Because I got my ATM card back! Money talks.
Please comment to share YOUR ideas on the best ways to improve active transportation.
(Image sources: My camera and The Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living)
I am an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health, where I specialize in childhood obesity policy research and systems science. This is my personal blog; any views or opinions expressed do not represent the University of Texas (or anyone else with power.)
My research has been featured in the New York Times, NPR, CNN, Wall Street Journal, and several other media outlets. You can follow me on Twitter at @DanTaber47, where I often tweet about obesity news, school nutrition, public transit, systems science, and occasionally random topics like Seattle sports, marathon training, or my latest obscure vacation destination.