Friday, May 8, 2015

Charles River Drinking Fountain Experiments

When I go running, my mouth gets dry and I get hot and exhausted. That's where drinking fountains come in handy. I live 0.8 miles from the Charles River in Cambridge, and there's a drinking fountain another mile down the river. It's not only incentive to run further - it has a crazy stream that I can splash on my arms and face and gulp repeatedly. I fully believe that drinking fountain has put me in better shape. I started wondering if other people rely on drinking fountains as much as I do. 

Over five hour-long observation periods in October and May (Cambridge drinking fountains are shut off from November to April), I saw 1,053 people pass two different drinking fountains along the river. Of the 159 cyclists, none stopped to use the fountains. But of the 381 walkers, about 5% stopped to take a sip from the fountains, and, most impressively, about 17% of the 359 runners drank. Of these, some filled water bottles and some splashed their faces. This data suggests that a fairly sizable population of people depends on drinking fountains to facilitate their exercise, and corroborates the many stories from runners who plan their routes based on water sources.

But these Charles River fountains have the most minimal care and design imaginable. They do work, which is more than can be said for a lot of this country's drinking fountains. But beyond that, care and attention is absolutely minimal. I decided to see if the tiniest cues to care could increase drinking fountain use.

I ordered a $40 cafe-advertisement-style chalkboard and bought $12 worth of bobbley ribbon from my local fabric shop. I wiped off the drinking fountain across from the MIT Boathouse with a couple of paper towels and removed a graffiti sticker. Then I sat and watched for two and a half hours.   

While the percentage of runners who stopped to use the drinking fountain did not change, (I theorize that runners' higher speeds would require more notice and time to change their minds - an intention to drink from a drinking fountain is a bodily habit built up over a lifetime), the number of walkers who stopped more than doubled, from 5% to almost 11%. Many more people walking slowed down, smiled, took a photo, or lingered around the sign without drinking - but maybe they will think more about drinking eco-friendly, super healthy water from public drinking fountains in the future.

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