To ensure better military, bike and walking paths need to be part of transportation funding

Patriot-News (Harrisburg, PA) – By Dennis L. Benchoff, Lieutenant General, US Army (Retired) and Michael A. Dunn, Brigadier General, US Army (Retired) – Transportation systems have always played a vital role in defense logistics and overall national security.

This was the case with early infrastructure like the Forbes Road that connected Carlisle to western outposts such as Fort Duquesne during the French and Indian War and the Port of Philadelphia with 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, our state and national governments have always made investments in various modes 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 are again urging Pennsylvania lawmakers to invest in a comprehensive transportation plan to ensure future national security.

This time however, we are calling for the inclusion of a first-ever state investment 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 regarding a new threat to national security – the fact that 75 percent of our nation’s 17 to 24-year-olds are not fully eligible to serve in the military – primarily because they are physically unfit, are 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 within three decades, threatening not only the overall health of America, but also the future strength of our military. If this situation is left unchecked, this troubled state of our youth could seriously undermine future 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 currently get the recommended amount of physical activity each day.

Only two out of ten 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 the potential effect on health and as a result, rely too much on cars. Our communities are frequently disconnected without safe walking and biking routes between community recreational facilities, schools, residential neighborhoods and commercial corridors.

In short, “Physical activity has been engineered out of our world,” as New York City’s Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley has said.

Cities such as Philadelphia and Portland, Ore. are making investments in active transportation infrastructure and, as a result 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 the City’s school students now bike to school.

Many contend that this increase in walking and biking helps to explain Oregon’s relatively low childhood obesity rate and Philadelphia’s recent 5 percent decline in obesity rates among its K-12 students.

Mission: Readiness joins groups such as the American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association, American Cancer Society and the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics in supporting that a substantial portion of the Governor’s proposed multi-modal transportation fund be dedicated to bicycle and pedestrian projects.

Additionally, we 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 state investment in active transportation options like biking and walking, Pennsylvania’s policy makers can improve public health and once again, ensure that our transportation system is fully supporting our future national security.