Saturday, May 18, 2013

Op-Ed: The Benefits of Active Transportation for Children

Children need to take a more active role in transporting themselves to school.  In 2001, only 13% of school children walked or bike to school, compared to 41% in 1969 (McDonald & Aalborg, 2009).  Coincidentally, the obesity rate has increased from 4.2% to 17% in children ages 6 to 11 (McMillan, 2009). 

There are several reasons that students are not walking or biking to school.  The first is the fact that schools are now serving larger geographic areas, so schools are larger and are often located in more remote, less walkable areas.  As noted in the Active Living Research article, “as travel distance increases, the number of children walking and biking decreases” (McMillan, 2009).  Other reasons that fewer children walk or bike to school are more related to parental issues.  There is the concern for safety, both as it relates to traffic and sidewalk infrastructure, and the idea of “stranger danger”.  The final reason is just that it is more convenient for the parent to transport the student to school.

I feel that the benefits to children in actively transporting themselves to school are too important to be ignored.  Various studies have shown that walking and biking students have a higher level of physical activity, have a lower body mass index (BMI),  have greater cardio-respiratory fitness, and perform better on tasks that involve concentration than students that traveled to school by motorized vehicles (McMillan, 2009; Goodyear, 2013).  Beyond the physical and mental benefits, active transportation can lead to a reduction in greenhouse gases with fewer cars traveling to schools.  There is also a cost benefit to the school districts which currently spend approximately 4% of school expenditures on the student transportation system (McDonald & Aalborg, 2009).  The final benefit is independent mobility. 

My concern is that students today aren't learning how to incorporate a healthy lifestyle into their daily
routines.  When students are driven to school, either in the family vehicle or on a school bus, they learn that it is acceptable to drive, even short distances.  I understand that some distances are seemingly too great to walk or bike, but children can spend upward of 45 minutes in a vehicle (bus or car), which reduces the amount of time in their day for any form of physical activity.  This lack of activity leads to obesity, and the long term health problems associated with obesity including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, orthopaedic problems, obstructive sleep apnea, and reduced life expectancy (Ang, 2010).

Ways in which we can address the problem of distance to school include locating schools closer to residential neighborhoods and having smaller school boundaries.  This will reduce the distance that students must travel from home to school.  Parents would feel less compelled to drive their student to school and the school district could reduce or eliminate travel routes for the school buses, reducing vehicle miles traveled and diesel consumed. 

The issue of traffic safety can be addressed by creating safe routes to school by adding sidewalks and bike lanes, classroom education regarding safe travel, and enforcing traffic regulations.  Safety from “stranger danger” can be addressed by having supervised walking or biking routes.  This can be supervised by a school staff member or a parent volunteer.  The idea of “stranger danger” might also be reduced just by the greater number of people visible on the street.  Neighbors become more conscious of who is around and the idea of community helps people recognize when someone is out of place in an area.

Finally, there is the idea of independent mobility.  This is the point where a student is found capable of getting places without adult supervision.  Some previous research found that in the United States, children began to travel independently around the age of 10 (McDonald & Aalborg, 2009).  Parents decide when they feel comfortable allowing their child to be independent.  Ground rules are often set for the time of travel, distance from the home or parent, and what routes can be taken.  For a parent, it can be liberating to not be tied to your child’s schedule on a daily basis.  It opens up time for other opportunities for the parent that weren't available when chauffeuring a child was a necessity.  Independent mobility also has a change on the child that can be seen in several ways.  There is high self-esteem that comes from having their parents’ trust and the responsibility and ability of getting where they need to be, and getting there on time.  There is the improved sense of direction and ability to recognize landmarks and familiar places which help them navigate their way to their destination.  And finally, there is the sense of confidence because they are no longer dependent on another person to transport them where they want to go. 

With all the benefits associated with active transportation, I feel we are doing a disservice to students when we do not allow them the opportunity to get themselves to school.  When we decide that they shouldn't have to walk or bike, we create the potential for serious physical health problems in the future.  We also stifle their emotional and psychological development because they do not develop the knowledge to successfully navigate their way in the world.  For these reasons, I feel children need to take a more active role in transporting themselves to school.

Why Parents Drive Children to School:  Implications for Safe Routes to School Programs
By Noreen C. McDonald and Annette E. Aalborg
Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol 75, No. 3, Summer 2009

Walking and Biking to School, Physical Activity and Health Outcomes
By: McMillan TE 
Published: 5/1/2009

The Link Between Kids Who Walk or Bike to School and Concentration
By:  Sarah Goodyear
FEB 05, 2013

Obesity - The Health Problems Associated With Obesity by Dr. Ang C. C.
February 22, 2010

1 comment:

  1. Tessie- great post! Your ideas reminded me of a disheartening blog post I read a few weeks ago about a six-year-old girl who was detained by the police for walking (with her parent's permission) to a nearby post office in her neighborhood. I think that "stranger danger" has become so overblown in our society, as seen in that post I mentioned. A balance has to exist between caution, awareness, and protection that still emphasizes active travel for children! Given the myriad benefits you described, especially physical health and self-esteem, we need more emphasis on travel modes that encourage physical activity for children.


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