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.




I would put my money on High-fructose corn syrup than distance to the school.

Silver Fang

I think parents in school districts that ban walking and biking need to band together and remind the administrators that they are elected officials whose salaries are paid by the parents' tax dollars and that the administrators work for the children and their parents, not the other way around.

Dave Callahan

Safe Routes to School is a movement that is already big the west coast - and Chicago has built a pretty effective program too. It usually takes some non-profit transportation advocacy group to push it forward with partners from the school districts, state and local DOTs and of course the PTAs.


Top reason I see why kids get driven to school: both parents work and are taking the car anyhow. We live about 4 blocks away from our school, but as both parents work, the kids have to be in a before-school program. We leave the house at 8am - an hour before school starts - and the school is on the direct commuting path to work. Ergo, our kids get driven. We hate it, but it's the only solution that makes sense for our timing. Lots of parents in our neighborhood are in the same proverbial boat.

Scotia K

Being a student in a town where there is fair amount of land in my district, walking and bike-riding may be ideal for some but for the people who live 15 minutes away by car would have to walk almost an hour to get to school. Also the temperatures here, in winter, are very low and it snows frequently. This makes walking or biking is considerably more challenging. However walking to school can cause people to be more active because a lot of children wouldn't be getting that exercise at all. After school kids come home and just sit on the couch and watch t.v. The activity level of these kids have definitely decreased and whatever helps should be encouraged, but sometimes it's very hard to do.

Camille A

School districts are so spread out now compared to the 1960's that it would take some kids an hour or so to get to school by walking, which just seems like an in convince if it can be shortened by taking a car or a bus. Also, its not as safe to be walking around the streets as it was back then because there is more of a crime increase now a days. However walking or biking more often would help children increase their activity rates and should try and be put back in to children's lives more.

Abbey S

Depending on where you live in the district, walking and biking could take more than an hour to get to school. Also, are school is on a busy street where many kids could get hit by vehicles, and it isn't as safe as in the 1960's because of the increased crime rates. But walking and biking to school does increase physical activity but, evidence does not support the claim that those who walk and bike to school are in better shape than those who take the bus or drive to school.

Korey h

The answer to te question is not why kids should bike an walk to school, but why they aren't walking and biking to school. There are many answers to this question. One answer is more kids now a days have the ability to drive to school. Also schools now offer bus fair for kids who live closer to the school. Unlike in the 1960s where if you lived within a certain distance of the school you had to walk. To add another reason kids aren't biking and walking to school is because of the fear of possible abduction. In the 1960s in my opinion people were more optimistic in that they didn't fear abduction. However in this day and age people are much more pesimistic and view the evil.

Justin Brzezinski

The topic in this post is whether or not biking/walking to school brings better physical activity througout the day, and how easier transportation has reduced the amount of people who walk/bike to school "causing" obesity. The writer proved a good point in which saying that people would have no idea if they'd be better off with or without it- but in the end it's peoples choices which will lead to another in they're lifetime- which directly leads to economics because economics is all about peoples choices that try to satisfy their wants.

Ashley W

During the 1960's many towns were levitowns where houses had fences where neighbors stood only feet away from each other. Schools typically were not far from the homes and children could walk 10 minutes tops to get where they needed to go. Now towns are spaced out and schools are farther from the homes children would have to walk sometimes more then an hour to get where they needed too. People do bring up how children don't get enough activity and walking or biking would help but why cant a child have an increased physical education program instead of cutting those programs therefore being in school would be helping the obesity problem.

Lindsey C

I think that times have changed and children today are a whole lot different from children 20 years ago. People have changed their life style a lot because everyone else has changed their way of thinking and their actions. I think it has a lot to do with the simple fact that children cannot even play outside by themselves anymore without the simple fear of being taken. However parents driving their children to school i don't think is needed that is what a bus is for. I know if my house was close enough i would definitely walk. And as for the children getting more exercise walking home from school i really don't think that would help now a days we just have more and more fast food restaurants and junk food popping up all over simply because it is faster and easier...the way our society is today walking to and from school would be a minor change in the many things that would need to be changed to get society to where it was many years ago.



It is unfair to say that the obesity rate in teenagers is three times higher than past ages because of not riding/walking to school. For an average 160 pound male walking about 1 mile, only 90 calories will be burned. Congratulations, you burned off ONE oreo cookie. I believe the underlying cause of childhood obesity is the availability off food we know have in this age. In earlier years the average family could not enjoy steaks for every meal of the weak. Besides the issues about weight I agree with the authors view that walking and biking will benefit the environment.


The cost of kids walking or biking to school is the cost of the bike and their safety. The main reason kids don't walk to school is because parents can't trust the people in their community. The benefit of a child walking or biking to school is their health. They will be much more active throughout the day and it will help to save the environment by not using cars. The cost of driving to school is the price of gas,the harmful affect is it has on the environment and the kids by not gaining exercise from walking or biking. The benefit of driving is that it is safer, they can get where they want faster and the parents can know where their children are at most times.


I believe in America today that kids find it easier to take a bus rather than use there time and energy on something more beneficial to them. Needless to say how all the kids are born and raised with technology all around them.

Clayton Stabell

i feel that walking and biking to school in my school district would not be good. First off, although some kids live within a mile of the school, most kids live farther. So as far as 11 miles or so. That means that the student would have to wake up mighty early, knowing that they had a long walk ahead of them. Secondly, we live in Buffalo, NY. teen degrees in the winter and numbers almost reach 100 in the summer. Therefore students would freeze or sweat just from the weather, not from the exercise they are getting. Also, in winters, students would need to wear a lot more clothing for the walk than needed in school. They would need someplace to put it because it all would not fit into their lockers. Lastly, students walking to school would make them not want to go to school knowing theirs a simpler and easier way of getting there.


I think that kids should have to walk to school if they are in a certain distance of the school. But if they have a car they could drive. There is no use in a bus going to a house that is right next to the school. Some factors that could cause kids to walk to school is the benefit of exercise. Also if there friends walk to school that could motivate them to walk or even walk with their friend. People often don't walk because they live too far away or they live on busy streets. Another reason why people don't walk to school is because there parents don't want them to. Another benefit of walking to school is not spending gas money if you drive your own car.