Evidence that access to bike paths and obesity might be linked?

A view of the South West Corridor bike path in Jamaica Plain. The path connects Forest Hills to Back Bay.

Earlier this month Mayor Thomas Menino and the Boston Public Health Commission released the annual Health of Boston report for 2010, and though it does not explicitly highlight the need for bike paths as a way to increase physical activity, a little reading between the lines shows at least a need for more study on the idea.

In fact, an unfortunately worded sentence in the executive summary could give some the impression that the city is doing just fine on a system of bike paths, even though the Commission clearly doesn’t think that’s the case:

“Although Boston possesses a considerable amount of green space and a system of bike paths dispersed throughout the city, community assets, such as farmer’s markets, community gardens, and food pantries, are less evenly distributed.”

Our city certainly needs more farmer’s markets, community gardens and food pantries, but this passage could be read to imply that not only does Boston has a “system” of bike paths, but also that they’re evenly “dispersed throughout the city.” This is, of course, untrue. And in their defense, the folks at BPHC do a lot of work themselves to ensure that people do have more access to bikes, including funding the new bike share program now in development, and even helping fund the BCU’s bike tune up stands!

“That sentence may have been awkwardly written,” said BPHC spokesperson Ann Scales. “Because no one at the health commission would imply that the system of bike paths in Boston is already done or that there is not a whole lot of room for improvement.”

As other parts of the report indicate, just as Boston has vast health disparities between neighborhoods, it also has vast disparities between neighborhood access to safe, enjoyable, and useful bike paths. That word ‘useful’ is key because some paths tend to get everyday use, and others serve almost exclusively as recreational areas on the weekends. Could there be a connection between health and bike path access? Without real study we can’t say for sure, but let’s take a quick look at the map of obesity prevalence in the city for some clues.

So the three thinnest neighborhoods in Health of Boston report are, in order (with the bike paths that run through them in parenthesis):

  • 7% obese in Fenway (Riverway, Fens, Charles River),
  • 8% in Back Bay (Esplanade, Charles River), and
  • 15% in Jamaica Plain (Jamaica Way, South West Corridor)

The three most obese neighborhoods are:

  • 40% obese in Mattapan (Truman Parkway),
  • 33% “North” Dorchester (Harborwalk, with two significant uncompleted gaps), and
  • 32% “South” Dorchester (partially-complete Neponset Greenway).

Just this cursory view indicates a connection, but even more so if you note that of the three paths in Mattapan and Dorchester–none connect neighborhoods in a way that might be used as a major commuting route by working people, while all of the paths in the thinner communities do. And in the case of North Dorchester, the Harborwalk is walled off from most of the neighborhood by the Southeast Expressway.

We encourage the city and the commission to keep focusing on bikes and how they might be integral in stemming the obesity crisis in Boston.

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