Study: The Importance of School Walkability on Children’s Active Transportation

Study: The Importance of School Walkability on Children’s Active Transportation

Thank you to Susanna Abraham Cottagiri, Carleton University, for providing this post.

The Public Health Agency of Canada estimates that only 9.3% of Canadian children and youth between the ages of 5 and 17 meet the recommended physical activity guidelines of 60 mins of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per day. Active school commuting behaviours, such as walking and biking to school are opportunities for children and youth to incorporate physical activity into their daily routines. However, the percentage of students who walk to school has been on a steadily decline in Canada. A recent report by Metrolinx estimates that the number of students in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas who walk to school has decreased from 56% in 1986 to 39% in 2011 among those aged 11–13 years and from 36% to 28% among those aged 14–17 years.

A number of strategies to promote an increase in physical activity has been recommended by policy makers in the last couple of decades. For example, there has been a recent shift in focus where researchers and policymakers have begun to explore physical activity through a holistic lens by looking at “where we live” (i.e., our environment) rather than just “how we live” (i.e, our health behaviours).

Examining where we live includes looking at i) how green our environment is, ii) how walkable the neighbourhood is, where these measures are often referred to as the “built environment”. Many studies have assessed the impact of features of the built environment on work-based commuting in adults. But little information is available on school commuting.

In a recent Canadian Journal of Public Health article titled, “Are school-based measures of walkability and greenness associated with modes of commuting to school?” we provide a cross-sectional analysis of more than 11,000 students aged 11 to 20 who participated in the 2016-17 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey.

Our study estimates that only about one in five students actively commute to school, where commuting to school was even less common among older students.  This lower estimate may be explained by the continuing trend of decreased active commuting over time, and is suggestive of further declines in active commuting in the future. There are likely a wide range of factors that contribute to these trends, including individual- and community-level characteristics such as distance to school, parent’s unavailability to walk younger children, and increased ownership of motorized transportation.

We also found that students who attended schools with a higher school-based walkability index (an aggregate measure of the three component scores: intersection density, dwelling density, and points of interest) were 2 times more likely to actively commute to school. For younger children, those that attended schools in highly-populated urban areas that were walkable and had a greater amount of green space, were also more likely to engage in active transportation.

Our study highlights the importance of making urban living spaces greener and more walkable, to improve physical activity gains. We hope that our research findings will stimulate a healthy debate on ways to enhance walkability around existing schools and support building new schools in areas that best support active living.

Read the original publication here.

Susanna Abraham Cottagiri is a Research Associate at Carleton University with research interests in child health, health systems, and the built environment.