Coronavirus

Study: More people walked during the pandemic, but how much depended on their income level

“I think mental and physical health have been hugely affected, and once again the most vulnerable populations are the ones suffering from this."

Craig F. Walker / Boston Globe

Many people took up walking during the height of the pandemic last year, according to a recently released study from MIT.

However, the study shows there’s a correlation between how much someone walked and their income level.

The study, called “Effect of COVID-19 response policies on walking behavior in US cities” showed that people in higher-income areas walked more during the pandemic, while people in lower-income areas – including neighborhoods with more BIPOC and those suffering from long-term illnesses like diabetes and obesity – walked less.

The study used GPS data from smartphones, and then matched the data with that from the U.S. Census to determine income level and other demographic information. Scientists were able to see when people took their walks, why they did, and for how long, according to a press release.

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In total, the study used data from 1.6 million devices between mid-February and late June 2020 over 10 metropolitan areas, including Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami, Chicago, Seattle, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

To categorize income levels, Esteban Moro, a visiting research scientist at MIT’s Connection science group, and one of the authors of the study, said the study left out those who are impoverished and relied on census data to show the median income for an area.

Leisure vs. utilitarian walks

“We found that high-income people started to walk more even after the lockdowns,” Moro told Boston.com in a recent interview. He noted that there’s a “strong correlation” between walking and those with access to facilities. Those living in poorer areas of a city, and those not known to have things like park facilities, walk less.

That isn’t to say that lower-income people didn’t go on leisure walks; those walks happen anywhere, he said. However, they happen less in low-income areas.

There’s a reason for this, according to Moro. Surveys from the state Department of Transportation, along with the study, show that most walks taken by those in low-income areas are utilitarian — they’re walking to a bus or train stop, to work, or to a supermarket. 

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“They don’t have time, or they don’t have actually parks or facilities, to walk to let’s say close to home,” Moro said. “So this is why most of their walking activities, they typically are utilitarian.”

Low-income residents also may not have a car, or may not have the ability to park their car at their job, so they rely on public transportation more. They aren’t the only ones taking public transportation, however. Moro noted that in places with more reliable public transportation, people of higher income will take it, too.

Walking data for Boston in 2020 – Courtesy of MIT

An opportune time

The pandemic, as we now know, will have long-term indirect effects on people, especially those low-income populations that may also suffer from long-term illness, like obesity or diabetes. He said the effects on mental and physical health, as well as community health, will likely be seen five years out to even 10 years out.

“I think mental and physical health have been hugely affected, and once again the most vulnerable populations are the ones suffering from this,” Moro said. “This is why we call this the ‘double pandemic’ because not only people with comorbidities, for example with obesity or diabetes, were more affected directly by the virus, but also they’re going to be more affected by the long consequences from COVID in physical and mental health.”

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These people are also the ones who lost their jobs during the pandemic, and are staying home more. They may also not have access to healthy food, he noted.

“If we don’t curb this vicious circle, there’s a chance these people are going to be double or triple affected by the pandemic,” Moro said.

Solutions

There are ways to get more people walking in all areas, according to Moro, as highlighted by the study.

In city centers, and major commercial areas, like in downtown Boston, there’s already infrastructure that entices people to walk, and often pop-up events.

“Our proposal is that we can also do these kinds of changes, whether temporary or permanent in other areas which are not so accessible or so popular, or so business-like, that can help people in low-income neighborhoods to have more access to these facilities,” Moro said.

He said another way to get people out more is to make them more aware of what their neighborhoods have to offer, somewhat of a rediscovery of their neighborhoods.

Then there’s making these parks safer. Moro noted that in the winter, Boston’s skies start getting dark at 4 p.m.

“So maybe they have to strengthen the lighting and also security around the parks, making secure routes from homes to the park center,” he said. “We are not saying anything new.”

The pandemic also created new policies that could be kept after the virus dissipates for good. In his native country of Spain, Moro said outdoor dining is much more common, and it became more so in the States during the COVID-19 era.

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“I love to see that, the people here discovered it’s a nice solution to be outside,” he said.

Changes in walks depending on income level. – Courtesy of MIT
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