Photo Friday: What a difference open data plus 5 miles makes in understanding people’s health choices: Capital Bikeshare

This is similar treatment to a Photo Friday a few weeks ago (See: Photo Friday: What a difference 5 miles makes in the health choices people can make | Ted Eytan, MD), except it’s about the use of our bicycle sharing program ( @bikeshare ) rather than access to food. The similarity is that I went to both places to see for myself ( with another physician and a patient )

This situation, that there are far less bicycle trips emanating from the Ward 8 stations (Obesity rate: 42%) than the Ward 2 stations (Obesity rate: 13%), is apparent to many in the city, and has been vigorously and thoroughly discussed in local blogs (See my collection of links here). The links even include a thoughtfully produced master’s paper with a series of statistical regressions exploring the factors that cause the stations in Ward 8 (Obesity rate: 42%) to be used less.

One of the main reasons this conversation is happening is because of open government data – Capital Bikeshare is making trip data available to the public to download and analyze, which they are doing.

If you look at the images themselves, you could tell yourself that the environment looks different in some ways and not in others. When we were at the Anacostia station, we could get the sense that it doesn’t seem that there are whole lot of places to ride from this station, given a big freeway in the distance and a metro station right across the street. One thing we did not do is talk to the residents there. I think this comment from a Ward 8 resident on one of the several blog posts is very insightful:

I’m a resident of Anacostia. I also happen to Black. I don’t mind cold temperatures much and I have internet access at work and at home. I’m also an avid runner and camper so the stereotypes in the article and comments section largely do not apply to me. They’re offensive all the same but that’s beside the point. There are 3 Bikeshare stations relatively close to me. Anacostia Library, Anacostia Metro Station and 1 at the foot of the 11th Street Bridge Eastbound next to DCHA. The 2 stations (metro and DCHA)that make sense for me to use are both a considerable walk for me.

There’s a bus that’s used heavily runs right past my condo that takes me to Anacostia Metro in 5 minutes. From there, it’s a 10-15 minute train ride downtown.

If I were to abandon my car totally, Metro is the most convenient way to get around.

I love riding bikes but for longer, leisurely rides. From my reading up on Bikeshare, it’s set up to encourage short rides and not sight seeing trips.

Enough about me. Here are a few reason why I don’t think that DC Bikeshare has not been utilized as much in Wards 7 and 8.

– The passageways across the Anacostia River are not bicycle friendly. Maybe after the completion of the new local overpass at 11th street, there will be an uptick. – Wards 7 and 8 are light on places to shop, eat and run errands. If I were to ever use bikeshare, I’d almost exclusively bike across the river which goes back to issue 1 with the overpasses. – Crime. Riding through certain neighborhoods are flat out dangerous. The first thought that ran through my mind as I thought about whether to purchase a membership was whether someone might rob me and take the bike. Would I be liable? – Cost. When DC instituted the $.05 bag tax, there was a major outcry about its effects on residents here. A $75 start up cost is a dead ender. – Health. A lot of residents in my neighborhood just aren’t fit enough to ride a bike further than a couple of blocks. – Perception. Many people are of the belief that if you have a car, you should drive it… everywhere. Also, bike sharing and car sharing (I’m a Zipcar member)are for white people and “uppity” Black folks.

So what did I learn from going to see things up close?

I am not a transportation expert, and looking at one type of transportation modality as shaping health is a lot different than looking at the food available in the community, so this is a much more complicated discussion.

My feeling from my experience plus reading about the experiences of others is that Bikeshare is not a culprit here but diagnostic of greater environmental forces conspiring to make health less normal in this part of Washinington, DC. From that perspective, through the use of open data, I would consider bike trips one of many markers of the community’s health, rather than focusing on the lack of bikeshare usage as the problem. From the thoughtful master’s paper:

Based on the regression model in this report, low ridership at these stations is primarily explained by socioeconomic factors (namely age and race), low retail amenities and Metrorail stations, and substantial distance from the center of the bicycle sharing system. Although the District continues to reach out to underprivileged communities through marketing and expanded membership access,4 these results point to larger structural forces and spatial constraints to increasing Capital Bikeshare usage among marginalized groups. Most significant among these forces is extreme gentrification over the last 20 years that price low income, primarily African American communities, out of the central city.

Prior to Bikeshare (and social media), we didn’t have the kind of data to have these discussions. One of the tangible results of open data is that 2 doctors and a patient went to see the situation for themselves – data can stimulate action, and this data feels actionable.


Ted, I’m fascinated by this issue as you well know. I enjoyed taking the #walkwithadoc with you and Pierre and I continue to look for “reasons” why @bikeshare doesn’t do booming business. I especially appreciated your inclusion of the comment by the resident. (I cringe at the stereotypes the commentor had to dispel before writing the actual comment, though.) What I wondered then, and continue to wonder about now, is the cultural connection to bicycle riding. Where I grew up, in a rural Southern Colorado county at the bottom of the Rockies, we had a few paved roads in our neighborhood, but the bulk of bicycle riders were using cycling as transportation accessible to people not old enough to drive. Once kids turned 16, they almost all used a vehicle because due to the sheer distances between points of interest. However, in an urban environment, I would expect the lower cost of bicycles and the ease of parking them to encourage lower income folks to use this mode of transportation rather than buses or even Metro for short rides. I agree that the original outlay of 75$ for membership is prohibitive, if not a complete barrier; but I wonder if a recycled bicycle program where the participanrts learn to work on bikes and can recieve bikes either free or very inexpensively would be a better option for this and other low income populations. If there is no barrier culturally to cycling, especially for kids in neighborhoods, then finding a way to get inexpensive bikes into the area and encourage ownership and exercise would address both access and healthy behaviors. This program in Southern Maine is similar to what I am suggesting here:¬†¬† I sincerely hope we keep this conversation going. Thanks for helping me understand more and more of the #SDOH

Ted Eytan, MD