I wrote the following for The News & Observer, where it appeared Monday, Aug. 19, 2013. It appears here with links. If you live in Charlotte and wonder where your town fared in the American Fitness Index ranking of the nation’s 50 largest metro areas, come back tomorrow for that report.
Despite boasting five Bicycle Friendly Communities and a greenway system fast becoming one of the best in the nation, the Triangle got below-average marks on cycling in the fourth annual American Fitness Index survey released by the American College of Sports Medicine in May.
But the knock didn’t hurt the region too much: Of the largest 50 metro areas in the country covered in the report, Raleigh ranked as the 15th healthiest. Minneapolis-St. Paul, lauded for its green space, ranked No. 1. Charlotte came in at No. 36, while Oklahoma City ranked as the nation’s least healthy city.
The American Fitness Index, introduced in 2007, ranks cities in 30 categories, ranging from acres of parkland and number of farmer’s markets, to number of smokers and people with heart disease, to the percentage of residents with health insurance.
The Triangle’s high ranking – it was the second-healthiest city in the South behind No. 11 Austin, Texas – doesn’t surprise Hal Rubin, who lived in Cary for 15 years before moving to the Charlotte area three years ago.
“I adored the Triangle,” says Rubin, who founded the Raleigh Weekday Activity Meetup group, which has nearly 400 members. “Cycling, hiking, kayaking, camping – I could ride a couple blocks to the greenway and ride to Umstead (State Park, in Raleigh) or head out to the American Tobacco Trail and go to downtown Durham.”
The area ranked high in the category of “parkland as a percent of city land area,” with 17.1 percent of municipal land devoted to parks compared with the national average of 10.6 percent. That shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s heard Raleigh described as “the city within a park.”
“I really think we’ve been very fortunate in this area that our elected officials and our city officials have supported and valued cultural resources and recreation,” says Diane Sauer, director of Raleigh Parks & Recreation.
Not to mention the strong support of residents: Since the early 1980s, Sauer says, Raleigh residents have approved more than $200 million in parks-related bonds, garnering as much as 68 percent to 73 percent of the vote.
“At times, they’ve had the highest approval except for candidates running unopposed,” says Sauer.
The Triangle ranked below the national average in percentage of residents who bike or walk to work. Nationwide, 2.8 percent of workers claim to use those forms of transportation; in the Triangle just 1.7 percent.
Eric Lamb with Raleigh’s Transportation Department says the city is working to make such commuting easier. For one, there are those five Triangle communities deemed bike-friendly by the League of American Bicyclists: Carrboro, Cary, Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh. Lamb points to the change in Raleigh since 2008, when the city adopted its first bike plan.
“In 2009, we had 4 miles of striped bike lane,” says Lamb. “By the end of this year we’ll have 23 miles, and in 2015 we’ll be up to 75 miles.” The current bike plan calls for 300 miles of bike lanes and an additional 75 miles marked with “sharrows,” a marking on wider streets indicating the presence of bikes.
“We’ve had to go through a culture change,” says Lamb. “Bike and pedestrian planning wasn’t routine, it was considered something special, not an inculcated part of what we do.
“I wouldn’t say it’s automatic yet,” he adds, “but it’s better.”
The Triangle’s deep-seated ties to tobacco also weighed against the region. Some 16.2 percent of local residents smoke, more than 3 percent above the national average.
N.C. Prevention Partners, a nonprofit that works to reduce early death from preventable illness, says the situation is improving. A growing number of tobacco-free facilities – public schools, acute care hospitals and restaurants among them – is helping to discourage smoking. The region also struck out for having an overweight population: Nearly 1 in 3 residents qualify as being obese compared to the national average of about 1in 5.
N.C. Prevention Partners isn’t quite as optimistic on this score, noting that statewide the figures are even higher: 2 of 3 Tar Heel adults is overweight or obese, while 28 percent of high school students are likewise.
“For the first time in 200 years, today’s generation might not live as long as their parents,” the nonprofit notes on its website.
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