The Vanishing Walk to School

Since the late 1960s, the share of U.S. kids and teens who are overweight has more than tripled. Why? I personally find Ronald McDonald kind of sinister, but it’s possible that Happy Meals might not deserve all the blame. In fact, Noreen McDonald—no relation to Ronald—of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has analyzed a trend that might be contributing to the alarming rise in childhood obesity: kids today aren’t walking or biking to school like they used to.

In 1969, the National Household Travel Survey found that roughly 41% of school-age children/teens got to school by “active travel” (i.e. walking and biking, though mostly walking, which then and now is more than 10 times more prevalent than biking).

In 2001 the walk/bike share was down to roughly 13%, a pretty spectacular drop. For elementary school children the change was even more stark. Today, even students who live within one mile of school have a less than 50% chance of walking; about 86% of similarly situated students walked in 1969.

This tectonic shift in kids’ travel behavior raises a number of questions. The first is whether, unless you are an unemployed crossing guard, you should care.

John R. Sirard and Megan E. Slater have conducted a nice review of the evidence on this topic. First off, they address the fundamental issue of whether walking and biking to school does indeed lead to a more active overall lifestyle. Given that active travel to school means on average about 20 minutes of physical exertion per day, it would seem self-evident that walkers and bikers get more exercise. However, it is possible that those who walk and bike compensate by getting less exercise at other times of the day.

A number of studies in the U.S. and abroad have addressed this question, and the preponderance of the evidence does suggest that those who walk and bike are more active in total. In fact, there is tenuous evidence that those who walk and bike might actually be more active the rest of the day, though this does not prove that walking and biking to school actually causes kids to engage more in other types of exercise.

On the other hand, the next step in the causal chain—connecting active travel to school to overall physical fitness—is far more tenuous. Studies have found very limited and contradictory evidence about whether kids and teens who walk and bike are less overweight than their peers. Studies looking at other aspects of fitness are similarly inconclusive. Overall, to date the evidence does not support the claim that those who walk and bike to school are in any better shape.

If there is no proven link between fitness and active travel to school, should we just resign ourselves to the fact that kids’ lives have changed? Perhaps if we really want them to experience the thrill of rolling down the street on a bike we should just come out with a PlayStation 3 “Biking to School” game, which would probably get a lot more takers than actual bikes do.

However, there are probably other benefits from walking and biking. Active travel to school has been replaced not by school bus riding but by travel in private cars, the share of which has risen from less than 20% in 1969 to about 55% today. All those cars are burning fuel and creating emissions, including in the immediate vicinity of schools, suggesting that having kids get to school on foot or by bike would benefit the environment.

Plus, walking and biking just seem right. I walked and/or biked to school for most of my school-aged years, and it somehow strikes me as sad that kids today do not.

I swore I’d never be one of those people who prattle on about just how much better things were when they were a kid. However, on the eminently reasonable assumption that everybody would be much better off if they made exactly the same choices I do, I’m going to accept the intuitive notion that more walking and biking would be a good thing.

So the next question is, what factors cause kids to walk and bike? And how can we use that information to promote active travel? More next time.



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  1. AaronS says:

    I can think of some very good reasons:

    1) Busing. Yes, I know it may be essential to our value of integration, but it also means that, for many, school is farther away than one would reasonably walk. If kids went only to their neighborhood schools, there would be much less reason not to walk.

    2) The rise of awareness/fear of predators. We have now been made aware that there is great evil “out there.” Whether that is literally true or not, we are emotionally compelled to protect our children as much as possible.

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    • Danny says:


      1. Yes, there is busing, but look at the stats above: even kids who live within a mile of school have dropped from 86% walk/bike rate to less than 50%. Apparently kids don’t even walk to their neighborhood schools anymore.

      2. Stranger abduction is rare as hens’ teeth and has decreased in incidence since I was a child in the 70’s. I would be interested to see comparative data (hint to the freakonomics crew!) of the relative death-and-injury risk to kids from stranger abduction vs riding in cars (vs any other number of leading causes); my best guess is that, despite sensationalistic news reporting, your child is more likely to suffer bodily harm riding in your car than via stranger abduction. “Protecting” our children from abduction has its own consequence for their development.

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      • Paul Kimelman says:

        The issue with #2 is not whether it is common but rather fear of abduction and fear of being a bad parent. Most news stories about kids who are abducted when walking around always talk about how safe people thought the area was. This instills the fear in parents that their “safe” area is not safe. Worse, the media is often critical of such parents for not being more careful and so parents have to worry that they are being bad parents in the eyes of the world by letting their kids walk or bike to school (of course Jaycee Dugard was waiting at a bus stop when she was abducted, so not sure what that says).
        As to 1, the issue is that with changing population and revenues, schools get closed and consolidated, meaning more kids go to schools farther away.

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      • Jen says:

        Re: #1 – The problem is both that there is more busing due to increased sprawl (i.e., higher percentage of families living further away from schools and really need to be bused) and that kids who live relatively close to the schools are bused unecessarily (true for my son – we live within a 10 minue walk of his elementary school and he gets to take a bus). And of course, when there is no bus to take the kids who live close by, the parents often drive them. This relates closely to problem #2 – it would actually be safer for the kids to walk to school unsupervised if there were a bunch of other kids out walking to school at the same time. Safety in numbers and all. At my son’s school, no kids are actually allowed to walk home alone, even the older kids – and his school goes up to grade 4. I recall walking to and from school by myself at age 6, and being responsible for my 5 year old brother at age 9. Not only is this resulting in less physical activity for our kids, but it’s making our kids less independent. It’s bad for them all around, but I don’t see it changing anytime soon.

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  2. Joshua Northey says:

    When I was 10-16 I used to walk over a mile to and from school through a very rough neighborhood. It was just a part of life. If I-pods had existed I would have absolutely loved my walk.

    People are way way too scared about the safety of their children. Children are safer today then at any point in the past, yet most parents seem to think that suburban American might as well be the middle ages.

    Maybe when you have a 1% chance of losing a child you just don’t worry about it because it is too much to focus/dwell on. But when you have a .1% chance of losing a child you start to think you can actually protect them from everything and turn into an overprotective crazy.

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    • pawnman says:

      Bingo. As Levitt and Dubner have pointed out before, humans are very bad at assessing risk. Most parents would let their kids swim in their friend’s pool, but would be nervous about letting the kid play in a house where the parents owned a gun…despite the fact that drownings are far more common accidental gun discharges.

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    • Mugging Victim says:

      ….with the iPod you would have been mugged for the iPod.

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  3. Craig says:

    I’m confused. Last week (in “Physical Activity During the Recession”) this site claimed that walking to work and similar activity was the best way to be fit, compared to standard exercise routines and physical activity as part of your job. Here you claim that walking to school has no demonstrated effect on fitness. Which is it? Is walking to school/work good for you or irrelevant? Or is there some difference between walking to work and walking to school that accounts for the disparity?

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  4. Mike B says:

    My mother who was a public school teacher for 35 years says that the problem of over indulgent parents who insist of driving their children short distances to school has gotten so bad that if given the means to do so, a parent would attempt drive their child directly through the classroom.

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  5. Jack says:

    Echo comment 1: I have two little kids, and especially when they’re elementary age, we would have to live in special circumstances for us to let them walk to school alone. I do agree that being able to walk to school does just seem right–so me or my wife will probably walk with them.

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  6. CandiC says:

    My son is elementary school and when we lived in a bad neighborhood (pit bulls on chains in people’s yards) I did not let him walk or bike to school. Now that we have moved to the suburbs he rides his bike the mile to school every day. I don’t know if he his healthier than his peers, but I do know that when my husband wants to bike around the lake or to the grocery store and back my son is strong enough to go with him.

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  7. Alison says:

    One factor that limits kids’ ability to walk to school is the weight of their backpacks. My (elementary and middle-school aged) kids currently walk to school, but my neighbor who just started high school was told by her coach not to walk to school. Apparently the number of text books she requires each day, plus the gear she must carry for after-school sports makes her (multiple?) bags too heavy.

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    • econobiker says:

      The book weight is from text book size creep due to pictures, modern digital editing capabilities, text size, and unused white space put into the text books. My spouse and I collect antique school text books – not for money- but because they look cool on shelves and to save them from the recycler.

      Text books from the early 1900s though the 1940s are super small mostly about 5″ x7″ x 1/2″ thick- without pictures, without wasted space, just the lessons.

      Then postwar 1950s the books started to balloon in size with the 1960s really ramping up length and width and then the 1970s kicking in the thickness issue to where we are today.

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    • tdr says:

      This is an excellent comment that I hadn’t thought of but may be a factor (throw this topic in with the issue of school supplies — ie how many a kid “needs” nowadays!) Last year my son walked to school, but his backpack was extraordinarly heavy — I could scarcely lift it! So I started giving him a lift in the car. Then we moved and he started taking a bus. It was a 10 min bus ride away and people were surprised that I “let” him take the bus. Of course, he loved being independant.

      Now my kids go to different schools. They have a more reasonable amount of stuff to carry and they take bus and subway because their schools are across town. We live in Baltimore which has a bad reputation. People are impressed/horrified when I tell them my son takes a subway to one of the worst neighborhoods in town to attend his very exceptional school.

      I think public transport is akin to walking as you usually have to do a fair amount of walking on both ends of the trip. And anyway one of the features of walking or biking to school is that a kid gains a fair amount of independance when he does it without an adult. Obviously public transportation provides this feature as well.

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  8. mickey says:

    In a very quick look, I saw nothing linking correlation and causality. Are kids fatter cause they walk less, or walk less cause they are fatter?

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