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.

 

 


Andy

My kids live close enough to walk, and are very active physically, but they like riding the bus because they get to see their friends. The number of cars dropping kids off at the schools my kids attend is alarming.

Enter your name...

They'll still be walking to and from the bus stop, which is at least a little bit of activity. Also, the kids at the bus stop are usually not sitting still, so sending them out the door a minute or two earlier gives them another couple of minutes of activity.

Andrew

The experience of Marin County, Portland, OR and other communities indicates that kids will return to walking and biking if you remove some of the barriers.

"Stranger Danger" fearmongers bear some of the responsibility for the increase in parents driving their kids to school. The odds of being harmed by a stranger while walking to school are tiny. The odds of poor health from spending too much time riding in a car instead of using your own legs is tremendous.

Kirk

I think there is one factor that is not usually considered in terms of what causes kids to be driven to school. That is the increase in single parent and two income families. When you're in this situation, it's not so much that you are going out of your way to drive the kids to school, but rather that you are dropping the kids off on the way to work. I know that's been the case for our family. I used to look down on all of the kids being driven to school...after all I walked to school. However, my mother was not working outside of the house when I did so. My wife and I carpool to work and drop off our younger kids at daycare on the way. If our school aged kids are on the way to work, it seems natural to give them a lift too.

Of course there are the usual culprits such as laziness, low-density neighbourhoods, misplaced fears of abduction, etc.

uthor

Not really related to what you posted, but the last sentence reminded me of a lady/child at my old apartment complex. There was a bus stop at the complex and kids standing around every morning. This one lady, though, would DRIVE her kid to the bus stop (it wouldn't take more than 2 minutes to walk to any point in the complex), then sit in the car with the kid (car running, of course) until the bus showed up.

Brian

I would happily let me 8 year old son walk or ride a mile to school if there was safe passage. between our house and school there are many busy roads with no sidewalks. He and I rode together once and I was white knuckled the whole ride.

Shane

Could this be caused by increased fear of sexual assault or other crime? If so, perhaps sensationalist news reporting that exaggerates the risk of such crimes could be leading parents to overcompensate and thus increase more mundane risks: like the health problems caused by a more sedentary life.

My school was about 5 miles away so we didn't walk, but I did roam the countryside for miles around. And play with fire!

Enter your name...

With Kindergarten in the family's sights, we've just started considering this issue. We live in California, the land where regular school buses are something you read about in books, so that's not an option. The others are:

(1) We drive almost three miles each way to the closest elementary school, like all of the families we've talked to so far. Note that we live in the middle of the town, within walking distance of just about everything. It's the school that some idiot put out on the edge in suburban-sprawl territory, at the end of a winding road and without anything like enough parking space to accommodate the 400 minivans and SUVs that appear twice a day.

(2) We walk nearly three miles each way, on a route that is estimated to have sidewalks for only the first quarter of the trip (the second busiest stretch of road in the entire county) and the last 50 feet before you reach the classroom buildings. For a Kindergartner on unpaved terrain, that's an hour and a half walk each way.

(3) We take a local transit system bus, whose nearest bus stop is half a mile away from the school, on the fourth busiest road in the county, with no sidewalks.

We're going to be driving (or carpooling, if possible). Getting our child to and from school each day will cost us $6 in standard mileage expenses every single day. That's $1,000 a year, not counting the one hour a day that the veterans suggest we plan for negotiating the traffic jam in the parking lot. If you value your time at the average wage in the US (about $20 an hour), then that's another $3,500 lost to this silly method of getting kids to school.

Times 400 parents. Our refusal to run school buses is costing the local families almost two million dollars just for this one school.

The alternative, apparently, is to vote in a 1% increase in the local sales tax to pay for school buses, but this is California: it will never happen.

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Aaron

Is there any research as to whether the decision for children to ride in private vehicles is by the choice of the parent rather than the child? My initial guess was that parent's prefer to drive their children from a safety perspective, rather than a time/money perspective.

Enter your name...

Except that having parents drive the kids to school is one of the least safe methods of getting the kids to school.

Thinking back to places I've lived that gave parents realistic alternatives to chauffeuring their kids to school each day, the kids who were driven to school by their parents were the wealthiest kids in the area. I think it was something of a status symbol for them.

In California, where most parents drive their young children to school for lack of a viable alternative, the parents seem to have built up some justifications, like "it's the only time I get to talk to my child" and "I like to say hello to his teacher every day", but these strike me as the sort of excuses you make up to justify doing a chore.

Uthor

I lived a 10 minute walk from my middle school, but had to take the bus most every day. In the morning it was no big deal. It was the last stop before the school, so I was on the bus for a few minutes. On the way home, it was still the last stop, so I was stuck on the bus for over an hour. It wasn't too bad in the winter or the rain, but sucked when the days were nice.

I'd walk home occasionally, but the school policy was not to let you unless you got prior permission from your parent. The students who took the bus were let out first and you had to get on the bus. You'd have to have the teacher fail to notice that you were hanging around 'til the buses left to be able to walk. It was a big to-do.

I walked most days in high school unless the weather was bad (snow didn't bother us). The bus here was actually better (took the same route we walked and my stop was second), but walking with my friends and blowing time/money in the arcade at 7-11 was worth it.

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SAO

In the town where I grew up, crossing guards have vanished. In the 60s, you could send kids to school on foot and they didn't have to cross a busy street without a crossing guard. Not true today. The presence of crossing guards kept speeding to a minimum.

Many smaller, older schools have been closed, consolidated into newer, bigger schools, so more children live too far away to walk.

In the 60s, everyone walked and most families had 3-4 school-aged kids. The crowd of schoolkids walking probably reduced the incentive for the predators.

Lassie

When I was young...I walked the half mile to school (I was exactly one half a block too close to the school to ride the bus, which picked up the kids who lived right up the street from me.) Up hill, down hill, summer, winter, from elementary through high school. After I started working, I took the bus, which was also a considerable walk from my home. At age 18-25 I weighed about 100 lbs. When I got my first car at 25 - that's all she wrote, and I started gaining...but I lived in a small village with sidewalks and no big traffic. When MY daughter was young, of course she took the bus - we lived out in the middle of the burbs, no sidewalks, miles away from the school, and even if she could walk there, I would not have allowed it. The traffic, the trucks whizzing by - you can seriously take your life in your hands There is about one death a year of a pedestrian, and it ain't gonna be me or my kid!

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jeffreytg

My observation is that schools are eliminating lockers due to fear of sinister contents in said lockers. My son's high school had wall-lockers but they were not assigned for students to use and were unavailable. The middle school, was built without lockers. This means that my child had to transport almost all books to and from home each day; but for a single class that actually issued two books- one to leave at home and another for classroom use. Those book bags are heavy, I estimate 25-30 lbs of binders, misc supplies, and books for a student weighing 100 lbs or less in middle school and girls weighing not much more than 100 lbs in early high school.

We have the school district's fear of school shooting/drug sales coupled with parental fear of a predator both at play here.

On top of this, often children have extracurricular after school activities such as karate, swimming lessons, music lessons, and the dreaded soccer practice that they need to be shuttled to.

You put all of this together and you arrive at suburban children being carted to and fro vs walking as when I was a child in the 70's. Both my parents worked ("outside the home" for political correctness sake) and by the time I was in 5th grade I was on my own to get to school and get back home.

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