Influence of the Social Environment on Children's School Travel

Children who walk or bike to school get more exercise in their daily lives, which is a basic goal in the fight against childhood obesity. There has been extensive study of demographics and the physical environments associated with kid’s active travel to school, but very little investigation of neighborhood social factors that may also influence the choice of travel. This study looks at one aspect of social environment—do parents think other neighborhood adults will monitor and intervene in children’s inappropriate behavior—to see if this child-centered social control correlates to children walking to school. They also looked at whether the child’s sex or household race/ethnicity further influenced school transport choice. Researchers surveyed 357 parents of 10- to 14-year-olds in the San Francisco Bay Area during 2006 and 2007.

Key Findings:

  • Of children whose parents reported high levels of child-centered social control in their neighborhoods, 37 percent walked to school compared to just 24 percent of children whose parents reported low or neutral views of social control. When differences related to gender and race/ethnicity were eliminated, there was still a 10-point difference.
  • Girls were much less likely than boys to walk to school if their parents had negative or neutral views; only 19 percent of girls walked versus 30 percent of boys.
  • When parents thought there was high child-centered social control in their neighborhood, there was no difference between the sexes.
  • Non-Hispanic White children were significantly less likely to walk if their parents perceived low or neutral neighborhood social control. While 49 percent of these children walked if their parents had positive views, and 24 percent walked if their parents had neutral or negative views. Comparative differences were insignificant in other racial groups.

This study finds parents’ perception of their neighborhood’s child-centered social control is a significant factor in whether children walk to school, particularly for girls and non-Hispanic White children. Although the majority of federal Safe Routes to School funds must be spent on infrastructure, between 10 and 30 percent of funds can be spent on education and encouragement programs. This study suggests programs that help build neighborhood connectedness, such as e-mail listservs, neighborhood events and the creation of walking school buses, may encourage more children to walk to school. However, the cross-sectional nature of this study means causal links cannot be determined; it is possible families who walk to school meet more people and have more positive views of their neighborhoods or choose to live in neighborhoods with more social control.