The road takes a toll on valley drivers' health

The more time people spend behind the wheel, the more likely they are to become stressed, overweight and dead.

But more time in cars is exactly what we can look forward to in the San Joaquin Valley, California's fastest growing region, where road improvements are not keeping pace and where residential planning decisions don't always consider health.

"If you're moving to Modesto, your housing options would be single-family house or single-family house, take your choice," said Christopher Leinberger, a developer, professor and fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. "Your option to buy some bread would be to drive to a strip mall built in the '80s or '90s, take your choice."

A trip like that -- mandatory for most in a car-dependent culture -- requires a lot more time these days than it did, say, 10 years ago. Almost any drive, whether to work or chauffeuring kids to soccer games, takes considerably longer on most valley routes. People change routines to run errands during nonpeak hours, or settle in for longer drives and more headaches.

A decade ago, Dorothy Price would allow about 15 minutes to motor eight miles from her home near Empire to downtown Modesto. These days, she and her husband, Mac, leave 30 minutes early to play cards at the senior center.

"Yosemite Boulevard is just a constant whir," Dorothy Price said.

And more driving, study after study confirms, means more pollution, more money for gas, less time with family and more chances for crashes.

The number of fatal accidents in Modesto grew from 12 in 2002 to 13 in 2003, 14 in 2004 and 19 in 2005, according to the city's Annual Collision Report, released a year ago. Injury collisions increased from 1,479 in 2004 to 2,053 in 2005, according to the same study.

Leinberger is the latest in a growing cadre of experts to blame at least some health dangers on poor land-use decisions by government officials, namely, city council members and county supervisors. His book, "The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream," due out in two weeks, urges more walkable communities.

'We ... planned it this way'

The problem certainly isn't unique to this area. Analysts for years have pointed to post-World War II national policies that set up history's first generations almost entirely dependent on road travel for many of life's necessities.

"The modern America of obes-ity, inactivity, depression and loss of community has not 'happened' to us. We legislated, subsidized and planned it this way," according to "Urban Sprawl and Public Health."

The book was co-written by Dr. Richard Jackson, who was California's public health officer when he spoke in Modesto about sprawl woes in 2005.

The valley's evolution as a bedroom community for Bay Area workers made things worse. About 15,000 commuters who found less expensive housing in Stanislaus County drive over the hill to jobs -- up from 1,000 in 1980.

"If the Bay Area had built more compact communities and planned for higher density, (some of) those people would have a 20-minute commute instead of 120 minutes," said Bruce Mast, development director for Build It Green, a Bay Area nonprofit focusing on links between development and health.

Some local growth decisions force people to drive from ever-sprawling suburbs, whether in Riverbank, Ceres or Modesto. Instead of building a high school near 14,000 people in Salida, Modesto City Schools is planning one out in the country -- in the middle of land zoned not for a neighborhood, but an industrial park.

Motorists drive more than 11 million miles in Stanislaus County on any given day, including "trucks blasting through on (Highway) 99 and not stopping," said Lark Downs, senior regional planner with the Stanislaus Council of Governments. His agency predicts the number will balloon by 50 percent in the next couple of decades.

"That's pretty astounding," Downs said.

A valleywide survey in 1999 showed 23 percent of respondents thought traffic was a "big problem." The frustration level more than doubled to 48 percent in a study last year, according to the Great Valley Center and the Public Policy Institute of California.

Across the country, drivers stuck in traffic create a $78 billion drain on the U.S. economy, wasting 4.2 billion hours and nearly 3 billion gallons of fuel every year, according to the Texas Transportation Institute's 2007 Urban Mobility Report, released two weeks ago.

"If somebody had said 50 years ago that the result of this policy would be 40,000 (accident) deaths per year and 250,000 serious injuries, I think there might have been cause for concern," Leinberger said.

Driving linked to obesity, bad air

Dr. John Walker, public health officer for Stanislaus County, said he is very concerned about health issues tied to planning decisions.

His outreach program includes "nontraditional public health partners," including government leaders who might plan wisely if they're more aware how their decisions affect public health, Walker said.

Leinberger said obesity and diabetes are natural results of not getting enough exercise -- an-other unintended consequence of sprawl.

According to 2003 data, the number of overweight and obese teenagers in the valley was 23 percent higher than the statewide rate of 12.4 percent, and the prevalence of obesity in adults 18 to 64 was 14 percent above the state figure of 55.5 percent.

And a study last month by the California Energy Commission linked climate change to planning decisions, for much the same rationale -- forcing people to drive increases greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.

Officials must encourage more plans with homes in walking and bicycling distance of schools, stores and other serv-ices, say Jackson, Leinberger and other experts.

Another possibility: more roads. But California increased its state highway lanes only 2 percent in the 1980s and 3 percent in the 1990s; population in the same time frames skyrocketed 26 percent and 14 percent, respectively.

Carol Whiteside, founder of the Great Valley Center and a former Modesto mayor, said the world's most successful cities are congested. The answer, she said, is finding ways other than automobiles to move people, such as more bicycle paths, light rail and buses. The Great Valley Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that has studied growth and development issues as well as social and economic challenges facing the region.

"We have to think about giving people choices," Whiteside said, "so they're not in their cars, angry all the time."

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.