Posted on: 13 February 2019    

Numbers do not lie and unfortunately these numbers tell me something I have been trying to ignore over the Christmas and New Year break. Yes, I will finally admit it. I am officially overweight by Ministry of Health standards. But why am I making this confession in a work blog? This is why…

A few years ago, I took off to Europe and completed my Masters degree in Munich, Germany. This took a couple of years and I have only been back in New Zealand for roughly 9 months. Within my time back in New Zealand, I found I have moved from the ‘Normal’ BMI range to ‘Overweight.’ There was no back-at-home binge eating involved or dramatic lifestyle changes and I certainly ate much more in Germany than in New Zealand, but the fitness tracker on my smartphone told me something I completely missed in my calculation.

I realised that I was walking much less back in New Zealand than I did in Germany. I decided to look into this and downloaded all the step data recorded on my phone since the day I purchased it in Germany. I had a years’ worth of daily step data in Germany and 9 months of daily step data in New Zealand. The difference was shocking.

graphic

On average I walked approximately 8,000 steps a day in Germany but a surprisingly low 4,000 steps a day in New Zealand. For a bit of context these equate to walking approximately 6km and 3km per day, respectively. The 3km difference is significant as it is almost the length of walking from Britomart to Newmarket in Auckland; the whole length of Moorhouse Avenue in Christchurch; or from the Beehive to the Mount Victoria Peak in Wellington.  

I put on my transportation engineer hat, thought about why this might have happened and made a list:

  • I no longer live at a walking distance from where I need to be every day.
  • There is currently no supermarket close enough to walk to do my grocery shopping.
  • Walking is not as pleasant as it was in Munich due to noise and traffic.
  • I am naturally choosing to drive, even for short trips, as there is usually parking at the destination.

That is when it hit me – New Zealand is making me fat without me even noticing.

With health being increasingly topical in the transport sector it is not surprising that research around the connection between transport and health has resurfaced. Dr David Tripp in a recent presentation at the Trafinz conference, acknowledged how ‘Overweight & Obesity’ has been listed as the top cause of illness and early death among New Zealanders by the Global Burden of Disease (DALYs, Global Burden of Disease, 2016). In the same conference, the New Zealand Transport Agency quantified that most of the trips in New Zealand are short (<2km) but mostly driven. My own experience neatly illustrates this transportation trend.

European cities are often set as good examples when talking about active transport, but largely thought as something too good to be true to have here in New Zealand. This can spark the good old conversations about population density, sprawl and most importantly when the cities were formed (pre- or post- motor vehicles) but in the end denser and more mixed development with pedestrian friendly streets increase walking and decrease people falling off the wagon without them even noticing.

The following comparison of basic statistics between Munich and Auckland shown in the table below tell us something we certainly know but continuously struggle to design for. Although relatively similar in population size, the density per square kilometre is roughly 1.5 times denser in Munich than in Auckland; and as for car ownership, 61% own cars in Germany compared to 84% in New Zealand.

 

 

Munich

Auckland

Population1

1,450,380

1,614,400

Density2

4,400 per km2

2,800 per km2

Car ownership3

610 per 1000 inhabitants (Germany)

839 per 1000 inhabitants (New Zealand)

1(stats.oecd.com, 2016) 2(Demographia, 2018) http://demographia.com/db-worldua.pdf  3https://www.acea.be/statistics/article/vehicles-per-capita-by-country; https://www.mia.org.nz/Portals/

Land use is a significant contributing factor in the choices made in transportation journeys.  The comparison between Auckland and Munich highlights some key statistical differences which are reflected by my own experiences.  Thinking about the reasons why I walked more in Munich, I concluded that:

  • Affordable housing is closer to the centre in Munich than in Auckland and therefore walking was always an option.
  • Mixed development in Munich encouraged me to walk when making utility trips.
  • Generally, Munich is a much more walkable city than Auckland as there are less cars within and around the city.
  • It is faster and more convenient (no parking at destination) to walk than drive in Munich.

I quickly investigated the mode shares between the two cities and found it to be mirroring my experience. The walking mode share in Munich is significantly higher at 27% compared to only 4% in Auckland and private vehicle mode share is 33% in Munich compared to 85% in Auckland. Looking at national obesity rates for the two countries they measure at 23.6% for Germany and 32.3% for New Zealand.

 

 

Munich

Auckland

Mode Share4,5

Private Vehicle

33%

85%

Public Transport

23%

9%

Cycling

17%

1%

Walking

27%

4%

Obesity rates6

23.6% (Germany)

32.2%
(New Zealand)

https://web.archive.org/web/20140408041150/http://www.ris-muenchen.de/RII2/RII/DOK/SITZUNGSVORLAGE/2497925.pdf  5http://nzdotstat.stats.govt.nz/wbos/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=TABLECODE7432 6http://www.oecd.org/health/obesity-update.htm

There will be other factors contributing to the different obesity rates between nations and cities, yet this trend both personally and on a civic basis is telling. This very brief analysis based on my own experience leads to bigger transport planning and land use questions. How strong are the links between walkability and health? Is in fact, land use and transport the key to resolving New Zealand’s top cause of illness and early death – obesity?! And, should the ‘Safety’ branch of our land transport system really read as ‘Health and Safety’ to reflect this link?

These are questions that as transport planners we have a responsibility to answer.  Realising how much daily walking affected me in the past months, I am now deliberately trying to walk more, especially if it can substitute the short drive. With this I would like to challenge the readers to investigate how much you are walking on a daily basis and if you are in fact slowly forming a donut ring around your belly due to the lack of it. As for me, my personal experience demonstrates a very clear message…the more you move your body, the more (fat) you lose.

By Ruby Kim, Transportation Engineer at Abley

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