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 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.

Joshua Northey

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.


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?

Mike B

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.


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.


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.


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.


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?

David S

I know that liability was a big factor for my district in forcing all kids to ride the bus to school. I think lots of districts are afraid little Johhny's parents will sue if he gets hurt on a bike/walking anywhere near the school.

Fear of kids being abducted (when, in fact, the crime rate has dropped).

I also would think schools today need a lot more room now for tracks, stadiums, fields.


I too lament the loss of walking to school. I'm very sorry my kids don't have the same. In addition to reasons mentioned above:

*many new developments have no sidewalks - meaning kids and cars in the streets.

*the textbooks truly are heavier, but as a teacher, I can tell you, many kids carry all their books all the time rather than planning out their day. I *always* did my math homework during study hall so I didn't have to carry the book home.

*After school activities affect the pick-up portion of the day. When I was a girl, fewer activites exsisted and most of them were within walking distance of school or at school. Now they require a parent to drive them because many are not school based.

*it is hard to be one of few children walking to school. If all the neighborhood kids are out walking, cars know to look for them, younger ones can be paired with older ones, etc. but once the system falls apart, it is hard to be the only parent insisting your kids walk.



My theory is that it is partially driven by the fear of child abduction. As the news is filled with these types of stories, more parents want to keep their children safe. In my neighborhood, the elementary school is on the other side of a 4 lane road, and doesn't have a sidewalk. Thus, no one walks.


Sounds like the crossing problem is easily remedied by a crosswalk and traffic light. That said, I am a huge advocate of walk to school and have helped institute an active commute program for my son's school. And yet I realized that I was whizzing through another school zone at a busy intersection, and when I realized it, was glad my kid didn't have to walk to that school.


The increase in households with two working adults accounts for some of it. Even though we live less than a mile from my 6 year old's elementary school, I am not quite ready to let him stay home for an hour and a half by himself until I get home. We utilize the before and after school care offered by the school which requires us to drive him to and from school.


I can't believe there is even a question as to why. Parents today seem to think any person within 100 feet of their child is going to kidnap them.

I think I'm the only disgruntled parent in the district over the policy that the bus driver won't release my child from the bus unless I'm waiting at the sidewalk. Did I mention the bus stop is 60 feet from my front door? They don't trust a first grader to walk 50 feet from the bus to her front door!!! What kind of message does that send the kids!??

Unhappy parent in Virginia


This is an often-visited topic on the FreeRangeKids blog, and according to many commenters there, schools are actively preventing kids from walking or biking to school because of fear of injuries/kidnappings/lawsuits. It's a real shame.


I would also add that the proliferation of tools and technology in our every day lives is contributing to the "obesity epidemic" (I think this is just a media play to create another group of victims that the government needs to save).

You no longer have to walk to the mailbox or post office to deliver a letter; you just type it up on your keyboard and hit "send." You used to have to mop a floor now you can do it easily with a Swiffer Wetjet or you can have a Rumba do it for you. Mechanics used to have to use a tire iron to screw in lug nuts; now they have air guns do all the work.

You used to have to go to the library to do research now you can use your phone for that. It all adds up after a while.


Really guys? Between the post complaining about requiring calorie information on menus and this one which is pure fluff setting up the real post, this blog is not fulfilling it's promise on exposing the hidden side of everything.

Mention the study and then go into why kids aren't walking and biking to school more. Eleven paragraphs with the conclusion that there's no causality between walking/biking and health and ending with a gut feeling isn't why I come here. Teach me something I didn't know. Show me the causality between reduced walking/biking and increased drop out rates or increased death by heart attack when you're 50 or whatever it is you can show me. Externalities abound, tell me about them. Please.


Trends against walking to school:

1. We expect more from school! I attended my local school, by default, and was able to walk/bike there. In contrast, MY kids attend magnet schools that offer the programs that best match my precious darlings’ needs and interests. These specialized schools are fewer and farther between, i.e., not biking distance.

2. We expect more from school, pt. 2: heavy backpacks. ‘Nuf said.

3. We expect more from school, pt. 3: We expect schools to provide racial integration. Sure enough, that may require attending a school that is not in your own neighborhood.

4. We expect more from extra-curriculars. Cellos and hockey gear are hard to carry on a bike. And kids are going earlier and staying later; I’m not thrilled with them biking in the dark.

5. Low population density: More of us live in McMansion Acres, with manicured lawns and low population densities. Even neighborhood schools are serving a larger geographic area, so fewer kids are within biking distance of the school’s door.

Does all of this contribute to childhood obesity? Probably. But this list should illustrate that there are offsetting benefits, too.



I have not read through all the comments (probably not proper commenting etiquette), so forgive me if I repeat what has possibly been said already. If you are concerned for your child's safety, I have always been intrigued of the "walking school bus" idea, where parents establish a route through the neighborhood and the "bus" picks up kids as they go. The parent does not necessarily need to accompany the group.

Rachel Kuntzsch

Appreciate the article very much. I walked to school as a child as did my husband. As adults we purposefully chose to buy a house in a neighborhood where our future children could walk to school, which they did.....until their neighborhood school was closed last year as a part of school district budget cuts. Now our children go to a school across town (out of walking distance for elementary age kids). [Not only can't they walk to school any longer, but they are in a much larger school with larger class sizes, which has an impact as well, but a subject for another story].

Consolidation/location of schools should certainly be on the list of possible causes to the reduction in numbers of children walking/biking to school. In addition to the disappearance of neighborhood schools, the trend over the last couple decades toward building schools in greenfield sites which are largely only accessible by vehicles must have a lot to do with it too.