Data for Urban Health: With Ione Avila-Palencia

9 min. read
Ione Avila-Palencia is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Drexel University Urban Health Collaborative, working with the SALURBAL project. She previously worked at ISGlobal, Barcelona Institute for Global Health on the EU funded project PASTA (Physical Activity through Sustainable Transport Approaches). Her dissertation examined associations between urban environment, transport behaviours, and different health outcomes in European and US cities.

Could you talk about some of your current principle research interests?

I have had two different stages to my research career. My PhD focused on the association of transport behaviours with different health outcomes. Nowadays I am more focused on how cities are designed, and how this is associated with health outcomes. I’m also starting to look at how this is associated with environmental outcomes too. Yet, in the end, transport and city design are very connected, so I see myself studying transport and movement within the urban fabric.

There’s a global concern over a crisis of immobility in urban societies, which has been linked to poor mental and physical health. This has been amplified during COVID-19. Could you talk about this link between immobility and health? 

Firstly, there is an association between physical activity and mental health. This is broad as you have different domains of physical activity. You have physical activity that you conduct in your leisure time, and then perhaps physical activity when you commute to and from work. In my case, I focus on active transportation which is physical activity that is undertaken when moving from A to B. I particularly look at movements that are a routine so, for example, commuting.

A study we conducted used PASTA data to look into different transport modes including cars, motorbikes, public transport, cycling and walking. Some of those modes are sedentary, and some are more active. The most interesting result we found was that the transport mode that showed the strongest results was cycling – a great find! It showed that walking and cycling are strongly and positively associated with mental health, which is consistent with other studies. The mechanisms of being physically active have a positive effect on mental health, including the reduction of your stress levels. Another study we did that produced interesting results looked at the environment through which people commuted. Commuting by active transportation through green space creates those mental health benefits.

Loneliness and social isolation are growing issues in cities. Do you think that active travel can counteract this?

When we look at mental health, we look at social interaction and levels of loneliness. Cycling and walking show higher levels of social interactions. Research has been done in the environmental psychology sector that looks at how a person’s perception of their environment changes depending on the mode of transport they use. The researchers conducted an interesting experiment that looked at people’s perception of a scene in a park in which three men were talking with one another. Results showed that a person’s perception of the scene depended on the mode of transport the person was using when they passed by. Those in a car tended to be suspicious of the three men talking in the park and would wonder what they were up to. Those who passed by on a bike could hear some of the conversation and laughter being had, and recognised it as positive interaction. Those who walked by would perhaps recognise one of the men, or hear their conversation in more detail. It showed that active transportation is a key element of the social fabric of a city. It’s slower, you have more direct interaction with the environment you are exposed to in comparison to being stuck inside a car.

Cycling has been linked to many economic benefits. For example, studies report that commuters who cycle take fewer sick days and are more productive. Could you talk about the economic impact of cycling?

Although this is not something I focus on, it makes total sense that the bike is more economic. The bike has been a transportation mode that has been linked to justice as it is a cheap mode of transport – it doesn’t use fuel and it is something that anyone can use. In a project, we looked at data from Latin American cities and investigated the association between socioeconomic factors such as education level and income, and how this relates to bike use. In Latin American countries, what we find is that those with lower education levels and lower incomes are the ones who cycle more. This is different to what we find in Europe. If you look at data from 2008 to 2018, there is an increasing trend of people cycling generally, but an exponential increase for those who are highly educated with a high income. This is mainly because in certain cultures the bike is linked to poor people, as something that is cheap and doesn’t come with a status symbol. Yet as cycling becomes more popular and more fancy, those with a higher education level and higher income cycle more. It’s interesting as it depends on the cultural framework. Although it can be seen as a ‘poor’ mode of transport, it’s actually a very fair mode of transport. 

Could you speak about the project Salud Urbana en America Latina you are working on, and the type of urban health indicators you are studying? 

Salud Urbana en America Latina or SALURBAL, is a big international project with partners from different Latin American countries and the U.S. The project has involved the collection of a lot of secondary data. There are different groups of data being collected such as health data retrieved from the national health services, to socioeconomic data that takes into account matters from access to water to the overcrowding of housing. There is also built environment and transportation data being collected which is mostly what I use. Unfortunately it’s quite hard to get good data about cycling. In terms of bike and health related themes, I think that the SALURBAL is a major opportunity for the region as it’s the first time such data has been collected for the region as a whole. Before that, none of the collection was harmonised, so you couldn’t compare anything. So, while cycling research hasn’t been undertaken so much here, it offers a large potential for this region. Bogota, Colombia for example is very active in promoting biking and has produced some good data. 

I think the good thing about studying the Latin American context is that, for example, in comparison to the U.S., Latin American cities tend to be more compact and diverse. It’s much harder to tell people in sprawled U.S. cities to cycle such huge distances. Therefore Latin American cities offer a better opportunity to introduce interventions that encourage cycling. 

What do you believe are the main challenges in communicating the positive health impacts of cycling to communities and policy-makers?

I think there are so many good studies out there and, on that note, the main problem is the persisting need to improve the translation of research into tangible outcomes. This has a lot to do with the way the research community communicates with other actors in society. More generally speaking, we live in a society that is full of silos. People talk with their own people and no further. We need to start breaking those silos and talk to each other, exchange more ideas and create more dialogue. Even researchers who work in fields that are highly connected, can fail to even communicate with one another. We need to break that down. That’s a key first step. What is needed is to create a space where this can happen. I don’t have the solution but I believe that, from a researcher’s perspective, more funding opportunities for trans-disciplinary projects must be created.