COVID-related lockdowns reveal inequities in opportunities for walking
New research finds that Covid-19-related lockdowns have led to a marked reduction in walking in lower-income areas of major metropolises in the United States.
Lockdowns saved lives during the global SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. But as much as they have slowed the spread of Covid-19, there have been some unintended consequences.
New research from Dr Ruth Hunter and Dr Leandro Garcia at the Centre for Public Health at QUB and colleagues in MIT shows that lockdowns in 10 metropolitan areas throughout the United States led to a marked reduction in walking. These decreases were mostly seen among residents living in lower-income areas of the city, effectively reducing access to physical activity for minorities and people suffering from illnesses such as obesity and type II diabetes.
“Walking is the most accessible physical activity that you can do,” says Ruth Hunter, lead author on the Nature Communications paper. “Places in which people have lower incomes, less park access, and more obesity prevalence were more affected by this walking reduction — which some have described as another pandemic, the lack of access to and opportunities for affordable physical activity.”
The research focused on recreational versus utilitarian walking done by residents in the U.S. cities of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Miami, Dallas, San Francisco, Seattle, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. (Utilitarian walking is defined as walking for the primary purpose of accomplishing errands or getting somewhere; for example, walking to the store or to public transportation. Recreational walking is a walk meant for leisure or exercise).
Comparing mobile phone data from February 2020 to different time points throughout 2020 lockdowns, the researchers saw an average 70 percent decrease in the number of walks — which remained down by about 18 percent after loosened restrictions — a 50 percent decrease in distance walked, and a 72 percent decrease in utilitarian walking — which remained down by 39 percent even after restrictions were lifted.
On their face, these findings may not be surprising. When people couldn’t leave their homes, they walked less. But digging deeper into the data yields troubling insights. For example, people in lower-income regions are more likely to rely on public transportation. Lockdowns cut back on those services, meaning fewer people walking to trains and buses.
Another statistic showed that people in higher-income areas reduced their number of utilitarian walks but were able to replace some of the lost movement with recreational walks around their neighbourhoods or in nearby parks.
“People in higher-income areas generally not only have a park nearby, but also have jobs that give them a degree of flexibility. Jobs that permit them to take a break and walk,” says Esteban Moro, visiting research scientist in the MIT Connection Science Group and senior author on the paper. “People in the low-income regions often don't have the opportunity or even the facilities to actually do this.”
How it was done
The researchers used de-identified mobile data obtained through a partnership within the company Cuebiq’s Data for Good COVID-19 Collaborative program. The completely anonymised dataset consisted of GPS locations gathered from smartphone accelerometers from users who opted into the program. The researchers took these data and, using specifically designed algorithms, determined when people walked, for how long, and for what purpose. They compared this information from before the pandemic, at different points throughout lockdown, and at a point when most restrictions had been eased. They matched the GPS-identified locations of the smartphones with census data to understand income level and other demographics.
To make sure their dataset was robust, they only used information from areas that could reasonably be considered pedestrian. The researchers also acknowledge that the dataset may be incomplete, considering people may have occasionally walked without their phones on them.
Leisure versus utilitarian walks were separated according to distance and/or destination. Utilitarian walks are usually shorter and involve stops at destinations other than the starting point. Leisure walks are longer and usually happen closer to home or in dedicated outdoor spaces.
For example, many of the walks recorded pre-Covid-19 were short and occurred at around 7 a.m. and between 3 and 5 p.m., which would indicate a walking commute. These bouts of walking were replaced on weekends by short walks around noon.
The key takeaway is that most walking in cities occurs with the goal of getting to a place. If people don’t have the opportunity to walk to places they need to go, they will reduce their walking activity overall. But when provided opportunity and access, people can supplement utilitarian activity with leisure walking.
What can be done about it
The authors suggest several tactical urbanisation strategies (defined as non-permanent but easily accessible measures) to increase safety and appeal for both utilitarian and recreational walkers. Many of these have already been implemented in various cities around the world to ease economic and other hardships of the pandemic. Sections of city streets have been closed off to cars on weekends or other non-busy times to allow for pedestrian walking areas. Restaurants have been given curb space to allow for outdoor dining. But most of these pop-up pedestrian areas happen in downtown, where people are high-income and have easier access to more walking opportunities.
The same attention needs to be paid to lower-income areas, the researchers argue. This study’s data showed that people explored their own neighbourhoods in a recreational way more during lockdown than pre-pandemic. Such wanderings, the researcher say, should be encouraged by making any large, multi-lane intersections safer to cross for the elderly, sick, or those with young children. And local parks should be made more attractive destinations by adding amenities like water fountains, shaded pavilions, and hygiene and sanitation spaces.
This study was unique in that its data came direct from mobile devices, rather than being self-reported in surveys. This more reliable method of tracking made this study more data-driven than other, similar efforts. And the geotagged data allowed the researchers to explore socioeconomic trends associated with the findings.
This is the team’s first analysis of physical activity during and just after lockdown. They hope to use lessons learned from this and planned follow-ups to encourage more permanent adoption of pedestrian-friendly pandemic-era changes.
The research also involved collaborators from the UK, Brazil, and Australia.
Images courtesy of the Connswater Community Greenway Trust.