Walking and biking makes us more secure in more ways than one

Pennsylvania must invest in active modes of transportation not only to make us healthier, but also to help protect our country

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Transportation systems have always played a vital role in America's national security. This was the case with early infrastructure like the Forbes Road that connected Carlisle, Pa., to western outposts like Fort Duquesne during the French and Indian War and to the Port of Philadelphia and its naval shipyards shortly after the nation's founding.

From these early investments to the development of our modern-day rail, aviation and interstate highway systems -- the latter formally known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways -- our state and national governments have invested in various types of transportation on the grounds of national defense.

As retired general officers of the U.S. armed forces and members of a growing effort known as Mission: Readiness, we urge Pennsylvania lawmakers to invest in a comprehensive transportation plan to ensure our nation's security. This time we are calling for the state to include investments in "active modes" of transportation.

So what does transportation funding for bicycling and walking have to do with national security?

The short answer is obesity prevention.

In 2009, the Department of Defense issued a warning about a rising threat to national security -- the fact that 75 percent of America's 17- to 24-year-olds are not eligible to serve in the military because they are physically unfit, too poorly educated or have disqualifying criminal records. Being overweight or obese is the leading medical disqualifier for military service -- barring one out of four potential recruits.

Obesity rates among children have tripled over the past three decades, threatening not only the overall health of Americans but also the future strength of our military. If this situation is left unchecked, this troubled state of our youth could seriously undermine military recruiting efforts.

Contributing to our country's obesity epidemic is the fact that nearly 50 percent of U.S. adults and 65 percent of adolescents do not get the recommended amount of physical activity each day. Only two out of 10 Pennsylvania high school students attend physical education classes daily, and only one-third as many children and youth are walking or biking to school as compared to a generation ago.

To compound the problem, traditional transportation- and community-planning efforts often overlook health effects and, as a result, rely too much on cars. Our communities are frequently disconnected without safe walking and biking routes between recreational facilities, schools, residential neighborhoods and commercial corridors. In short, "physical activity has been engineered out of our world," as New York City Health Commissioner Tom Farley has said.

Cities such as Philadelphia and Portland, Ore., are investing heavily in active transportation infrastructure and have seen substantial increases in people biking and walking. In Philadelphia, the number of adults biking to work has more than tripled, and Portland is reporting that 39 percent of its school students now bike to school. This increase in walking and biking likely helps explain Oregon's relatively low childhood obesity rate and Philadelphia's recent 5 percent decline in obesity rates among K-12 students.

Pittsburgh also has been recognized as a "Bicycle Friendly Community" by the League of American Bicyclists for its efforts to build bike and pedestrian infrastructure. Unfortunately, those efforts have been slowed due to funding constraints.

This is why Mission: Readiness is joining groups such as the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association, the American Cancer Society and the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics in urging that a substantial portion of Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed multi-modal transportation fund be dedicated to bicycle and pedestrian projects in Pittsburgh and throughout the commonwealth. We also support the establishment of a bicycle and pedestrian coordinator within the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to plan and implement such projects.

By making a first-ever substantial state investment in active transportation options like biking and walking, Pennsylvania's policymakers can improve public health while helping to ensure that our nation remains secure.

opinion_commentary

Dennis L. Benchoff, a retired lieutenant general and former chief of staff of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, is an adjunct professor of mathematics at Harrisburg Area Community College. Michael A. Dunn, a retired brigadier general and former commander of Walter Reed Healthcare System, is a professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.


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