FTA bus test adjustment touches on weighty health problem

Posted on March 23, 2011 by Nicole Schlosser

Early last week, the FTA proposed, for more accuracy in bus safety regulations testing, an adjustment to the average passenger weight it uses, from 150 lbs. to 175 lbs., and increased the average occupied floor space from 1.5 to 1.75 square feet. Many mainstream media outlets picked up the story this week, and it seems to have hit a nerve.

In addition to the fact that the decision implies the average American has, in the less-than-delicate observations of some writers, “gotten fatter,” the current regulations were determined in 1960, half a century ago. Far be it for me to say but, yeah, seems like it would be time for an update.

Still, as Kyla King at mlive.com pointed out, data from the National Institutes of Health show Americans are “getting larger, with 64 percent of U.S. adults being overweight, one-third being obese. And, 15 percent of children ages six to 19 being overweight, triple the proportion in 1980.”
The FTA isn’t the only government agency ratcheting up its numbers to take on the heftier traveler. The Federal Aviation Administration now puts the average American’s weight at 190 lbs., in summer, and 195 lbs. in winter. Jennifer Kalczuk, the spokeswoman for The Rapid, Grand Rapids, Mich.’s public transit system, makes an interesting point in the same mLive story about why bus transit testing weights are still lower than other forms of transportation, such as air travel: The proven link between public transit use and better health.

The eventual implication of the adjusted weight would be that manufacturers would need to review the current advertised capacities, make necessary changes to design, create and accommodate larger seats and, as the article notes, fewer people would be allowed on board.

Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority spokeswoman Mary McCahon told  19ActionNews.com that, instead of buying new, expensive buses, the system will likely opt to reduce the number of riders. Depending on the bus, that could mean five to 10 fewer riders per vehicle, McCahon added. This information sparked a quote from a rider (I think: the story doesn’t specify) about discrimination against overweight people, which, apparently, is nearly two-thirds of us.

Another interviewed rider took the news personally, saying to ABC15.com that the proposal assumes “most Americans are overweight, so in a way that can be offensive to me.” However, in this story, which pulls no punches in its headline, Yahoo contributor Wes Laurie countered, “The FTA is actually on the side of bigger people, unlike what has seemingly happened with airlines, in being willing to adjust the vehicles for them at no extra cost.”

These stories also made me think about one of the major factors responsible for Americans packing on the pounds: Leading a sedentary lifestyle. Many of us sit behind a desk, or steering wheel, for the majority or our long workdays. It can be difficult to fit in exercise, or even to take a break for a walk or to stretch. Some workplaces are trying to help remedy that by encouraging more breaks and providing incentives on healthcare plans. Is your agency or company doing something similar?

And, of course, with gas prices rising and ridership jumping again, the FTA’s adjustment could add to transit’s difficulty in meeting demand. Many of you are or have been out on the road, driving passengers every day. Has the haul gotten heavier? Has it impacted your job or the jobs of your drivers? What kind of repercussions will this have for your company or agency?

In case you missed it...

Read our METRO blog, "Would growing ridership hurt or hinder transit agencies?" here.

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