Monday, June 3, 2013

Op-Ed: Active Transportation in High School: A New Frontier

“New technologies such as computers and gaming systems have also increased the quantity of choices for sedentary entertainment. At the same time, many American children now live in a physical environment that discourages physical activity,” (Clark, 2011). This is from “The Effect of Low-cost Incentives on Active Transportation to School Rates among Elementary School Students,” a research article with a focus on a certain age demographic. Elementary schools are often targeted for active transportation (AT) programs, so research information geared towards young children is plentiful. However, one of the age demographics that often get overlooked when it comes to AT outreach is high school students.
                According to the National Household Travel Survey, in 2009, 62.1% of high school students traveled to school by car, a percentage that is only 8-11% higher than their younger counterparts in elementary and middle school (McDonald et al, 2011). High school students can be vital in shifting communities from being car-centric to AT-centric. They are the perfect role models for younger kids and are also the next wave of soon-to-be adults commuting to college and/or to work. But how do you convince high school students that AT is “cooler” than driving a car? There are two ways to possibly aid the transition to AT in older children: matching education incentives with AT goals and changing community attitudes towards activities such as skateboarding.

                First, let’s think about what’s on the minds of many high school students: what to do after high school. Perhaps implementing a program that connects students with scholarship opportunities at public Oregon universities and community colleges could be an effective way to motivate high school students to re-think their commutes to school. The program/challenge would be available to all high school students in the state of Oregon and the students could log their commutes in a way similar to the system employed with the Bike to PSU Challenge (Bike to PSU, 2013). Prizes and summer opportunities, such as camps or internships, could be awarded to challenge winners that are freshmen, sophomores, or juniors, and winners that are seniors could have the option to compete for the scholarships. Both sets of scholarship applications (one for universities and one for community colleges) would require essays, and the university scholarship application would have a minimum GPA requirement. The only other requirement to compete for the scholarships, prizes and summer programs would be a certain amount of active transportation “commute to school” miles/hours logged. Not only would this mixture incentivize students to become more aware of the environmental and health consequences of traveling strictly by car and help to change those habits, but it might also motivate students academically.

                Scholarship incentive programs have received some criticism. However, some research suggests that they can be effective.  For example, Kenyan schools involved in a program that provided scholarships for school fees and supplies to female students who received a certain test score or higher showed that not only did the test scores improve for the females who reached the test score goal, but even those who were ineligible to compete for the scholarships (males) or who did not reach the goal showed significant academic improvement (Kremer et al, 2005). While this may not be the same situation, it’s possible that similar results can be expected.

                In order to help pave the way to active transportation in high schools, schools must re-evaluate how they view often-marginalized activities, such as BMX biking, rollerblading and, most of all, skateboarding. More and more, skateboarding is becoming a regular form of transportation among both children and adults, but often the local government’s view of it is taking longer to evolve (Ostendorff & Burgess, 2011). According to “On the Edge: A Tale of Skaters and Urban Governance,” “…rather than acknowledging the loose, often unstructured but rarely undisciplined practices of skating, and instead of countenancing creative accommodations of these practices, urban managers—and especially those removed from social services—tend to reduce the problem of skating to a problem of managing young people in public spaces which sometimes reduces to a problem with young people per se,” (Stratford, 2002). The extreme division between people of authority and skateboarders has possibly contributed to the former deeming certain behaviors by skateboarders as “irresponsible” in schools and public areas. The bans and limitations on these activities discourage many students from being involved in something healthy, or has punished and/or negatively labeled them if they are. However, by encouraging activities like skateboarding through the AT challenge, some of that division, animosity and fear can be counteracted.

I was volunteering on a recent 5th grade bike ride with the Bicycle Transportation Alliance at Sunnyside Environmental School. Shortly before the ride, while sitting out on the playground waiting for the students, a group of 8th graders wearing helmets and carrying skateboards came outside, went into a shed and dragged out a skateboard rail. For a few minutes, I waited for an adult to come and put a stop to their game, but no one did. In fact, at one point, one of the teachers borrowed a skateboard and did a couple of tricks. I was stunned. This was never allowed at my school. Yet, I didn’t perceive their activity as dangerous; rather, I came away with an impression of children being safe and active, and having a good time. Sunnyside had figured it out: Don’t prohibit activities like skateboarding; encourage them, and establish supports to make them safe and fun.

                Implementing a program like this, along with revamping society’s stance on certain marginalized pursuits, would require a great deal of participation from several entities. However, by partnering with the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, Oregon universities and community colleges, the Oregon Community Foundation (OregonCF, 2013), legislators and politicians, and possibly reaching out to sport-related businesses, such as Nike or REI, it could revolutionize the education and public health of Oregon’s youth and provide a successful model for other communities to follow.


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Clark, Sheila G.J. “The Effect of Low-cost Incentives on Active Transportation to School Rates among Elementary School Students.” University of Nevada, Las Vegas. 2011. Print.

McDonald, NC, AL Brown, LM Marchetti, and MS Pedroso. "U.s. School Travel, 2009 An Assessment of Trends." American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 41.2 (2011): 146-51. Print.

Bike to PSU Challenge: 2013. Web.

Ostendorff, Jon and Burgess, Joel. “Skateboarders aim to flip commuter bans.” USA Today. January 4, 2011. Web.

Stratford, Elaine. "On the Edge: a Tale of Skaters and Urban Governance." Social & Cultural Geography. 3.2 (2002): 193-206. Print.

Oregon Community Foundation-Grants & Scholarships, Oregon Community Foundation. 2013. Web.


  1. Very interesting op-ed! Growing up in suburban Chicago many students resorted to the bus or getting rides from parents or friends of parents up until 8th grade. Then once driving was an option many shifted to driving alone or with a group of friends. However, very few walked and the schools were not supportive of bicycling to school.

    When crossing busy, higher speeds roads, and lack of connectivity is an issue how do you encourage kids to travel to school by active transport? This is especially true in suburban settings. In addition, parents are often very protective and do their kids a disservice by driving them and not allowing them to walk or bike, which is important for growth. I'm curious how the programs vary by rural, suburban, and urban areas.

  2. That's a really good point Brett. I think it would take a lot of education and outreach to convince some parents. For example, according to the NHTSA (, there were 4751 traffic-related deaths for people age 20 and younger in 2011; 3,410 of those were ages 16-20 and this jump right at 16 leads me to believe that these deaths were mostly people in cars. There's also the issue of the ever-increasing number of teen deaths and severe illnesses due to lack of exercise. The idea that driving is (in general) "safer" is something that needs to be discussed and put into perspective.

    I grew up in Springfield, OR and while the main roads are not all that safe for kids just starting out in active transportation, there is enough connectivity with the low-traffic neighborhood roads to schools to provide students with a safe commute. However, this is definitely not the case everywhere and there would have to be a great deal of effort put into establishing safe routes, providing maps of these routes to students, encouraging group commutes (possibly with a supervising teacher, BTA instructor or parent), working with parents and local officials to raise awareness and a multitude of other things. Hopefully at some point the "strength in numbers" effect would kick in and the idea that AT is dangerous wouldn't be such a prevalent concern for parents.


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