September 27, 2011 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

DC’s Capital Bikeshare program has had a fantastic first year. Stations full of sturdy red bikes have been popping up all over the city, and the system logged its one millionth ride one the eve of its first anniversary. Members can take a bike from any of the more than 100 stations, and the ride is free if they return it within half an hour to any station. (The system is still figuring out how to keep the most popular stations from being emptied out or completely full at rush hour, but the new stations that will come online over the next year should help.) Now I learn that Capital Bikeshare isn’t only a welcome transit option — it’s also a health intervention and a data source for mental-health researchers.

The Washington Post’s Ashley Halsey III explains that Capital Bikeshare will now be tested as a mental health intervention, with 20 mentally ill people getting bikesharing memberships:

“The cool thing about the Bikeshare program is we’re going to know exactly how much people are actually using membership because we’ll get monthly reports on it,” said Yavar Moghimi, the psychiatrist who proposed the program. “Basically, we’ll have an estimate of how many miles people have ridden, how many calories they’ve burned. We’ll know the locations — where they picked up the bike and where they dropped off the bike.”

Moghimi said he hopes the year-long study will prove that enhanced mobility and physical activity improve the patients’ mental health.

The 20 people selected for the study group range from the chronically schizophrenic to those beset by depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress. The only patients excluded from the program are those with cognitive disorders who might not be able to negotiate the bike.

“My hope is that there are unequivocal positive effects involving physical and mental health and that this project can be incorporated into other studies and sort of pave the way,” said Josh Moskowitz, one of the Bikeshare program’s managers.

Halsey reports that the study is funded by the American Psychiatric Association, and that Moghimi works at Whitman-Walker Health and is developing the program with the DC-based McClendon Center, which treats people with persistent mental illness. Instructors from the Washington Area Bicyclist Association are providing bike training to study participants, some of whom haven’t ridden a bike in years. The rationale for the study includes mobility as well as the beneficial effects of exercise:

Many of the people in the program live below the poverty line, Moghimi said.

“Oftentimes they have a very difficult time getting around, missing appointments with potential job interviews, and a lot of people may have been involved with the legal system,” he said. “Just general getting around the city, if you only have five bucks in your wallet, you’re going to pick and choose the things that you have to go to.”

Even signing up for Bikeshare becomes problematic for people who do not have the computer or credit card needed to get a membership.

… “The hypothesis is that people who have been riding bikes for six months will have a greater sense that they are healthier,” Moghimi said. “They’ll have a greater sense of mobility, that things are accessible to them in the city that weren’t accessible before.”

I was glad to see that the study design involves giving all of the participants access to the bikesharing program; half will get memberships during the first six months of the study, and then the other half will become members for the next six months. I hope there’s also a plan to help participants who felt they benefited from the program to continue their memberships after the study concludes.

This is a small study, and it would probably need to be repeated with a much larger group of participants before spurring any policy changes. But if an intervention costing in the neighborhood of $100 per person per year (an annual Capital Bikeshare membership is $75) can improve mental health outcomes, that would be worth knowing.

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