Boston’s Brains, Bicycles, and Behaviors: Casual Observations in Cambridge

I’m in the New England area for the next few weeks and have been spending a bit of time around the Harvard campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s a beautiful campus, with large, dark red brick buildings set in between some old New England neighborhoods with much greenery that are perfect for evening strolls. The picture above was taken on the second-to-last floor of their psychology building. Being a casual observer, I have noted a couple of things that struck out as different from where I’m coming from (the South).

Compared to Texas and Florida, the first thing I noticed is the near-complete absence of soft drink vending machines. Almost every business and building on campus at my university and my undergraduate institution have at least one

, usually most have several. Yet no matter where I traveled on campus here, it seemed that the only place you could get a soda was at one of several food trucks which serve mostly vegan options. Their only choice was Mexican Coca-Cola. The fact that these trucks are mostly vegan is another striking contrast from the food options on my campus which include chicken and waffles, Philly cheese steaks, and burgers.

The second most striking thing was the number of people who wore bicycle helmets on Harvard’s campus while riding their bikes. As a huge advocate for bicycle helmets, I usually count how many people I see riding bikes and how many are wearing helmets on my way to the office. It’s a habit. The case at Harvard was that I was instead counting how many people weren’t wearing helmets. Out of 86 riders I counted during the day, only four rode helmetless. The opposite ratio is what I might see on my university’s campus on a bad day.

So what’s the point? Obviously these aren’t official numbers conducted in a study, but these casual observations from these past few days felt pretty stark compared to where I live right now. The average life expectancy at birth for someone in the state of Massachussetts is 80.5, in Texas it’s 78.5 (source: America Human Development Report). There’s not that much large of a difference, and much of it can probably be chalked up to access to better healthcare in Massachusetts than in Texas. But I think much of what I am seeing around Harvard’s campus and my university’s campus may be reflecting some difference in mindful decisions, either as a result of differences in average intelligence or group awareness. I’m not going to take a hardline position on either, but I think that the Harvard crowd is more selected in some regards more than the universities I have attended in the Southeast.

According to the Department of Transportation’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System, 51% of bicyclists who were killed in traffic incidences were not wearing helmets while only 16% were (33% were reported unknown). Data from FARS also show that Florida ranks first in cyclist fatalities, Texas ranks 16th, and Massachusetts ranks 30th (although these statistics don’t reflect ridership rates). A recent study published in Safety Science reported that approximately 37% of bicycle fatalities could have been prevented if riders had worn their helmets (Bíl et al. 2018). Yet the city of Cambridge does not require riders over the age of 16 to wear helmets, so why might Harvard folks wearing more helmets than the Texas and Florida folks I see on college campuses?

A recent cohort study coming from the University of Edinburgh showed a strong correlation between major health outcomes and IQ, including likelihood of death from cardio-pulmonary disease and deaths from injury. It may be the case that the folks here, with average differences in intelligence or a more-increased group awareness, are exercising protection against incurred risk through the decision to wear a helmet. The food options on campus may also reflect choices in better nutrition for people with higher intelligences (although I also wonder if might also reflect the wallet sizes of Harvard students and what food-vendors can afford as product). Living in Texas, the supposed barbecue capital of the world, I don’t know…

An actual study with might involve looking for a relationship between IQ and helmet-use among cyclists in an average city-setting. Or just counting helmet use rates on campuses and assuming things based on SAT scores. If anyone is interested, let me know..

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Bíl, M., Dobiáš, M., Andrášik, R., Bílová, M. and Hejna, P., 2018. Cycling fatalities: when a helmet is useless and when it might save your life. Safety science, 105, pp.71-76.

Calvin, C.M., Batty, G.D., Der, G., Brett, C.E., Taylor, A., Pattie, A., Čukić, I. and Deary, I.J., 2017. Childhood intelligence in relation to major causes of death in 68 year follow-up: prospective population study. bmj, 357, p.j2708.

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