Smart Growth: Using Laws to Increase Walking and Biking to School

Feb 7, 2012, 6:01 PM, Posted by

The New Partners for Smart Growth Conference had several sessions on creating easier access to transportation alternatives that reduce dependence on motor vehicles. A recent study in the journal Health Place by Jamie F. Chriqui, PhD, senior research scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago Institute for Health Research and Policy, moves the debate forward with a look at whether laws are a help or hindrance in increasing biking and walking to school by elementary school students.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Jamie Chriqui about the study.

NewPublicHealth: What was the scope of your study?

Jamie Chriqui: This was a nationwide study by the Bridging the Gap program at the University of Illinois in Chicago. We examined the relationship between state laws related to safe routes to school, such as minimum busing distances or requirements for crossing guards, speed zones, sidewalks around schools, and practices and policies at elementary schools related to active travel to school. We conducted the study between 2007 and 2009 and looked at thousands of schools across the country.

[Note: Bridging the Gap is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded nationally recognized research program dedicated to improving the understanding of how policies and environmental factors influence diet, physical activity and obesity among youth, as well as youth tobacco use.]

NPH: And what were the results of the study?

Jamie Chriqui: We consistently found that state laws that required crossing guards were associated with an increased likelihood of students walking and or biking to school. Other interesting results included the fact that traffic control measures, such as speed bumps, increased walking or biking to school, but setting a minimum busing distance of less than one mile can reduce the number of children walking and biking to school.

NPH: How would having health impact assessments improve the likelihood of kids walking or biking to school?

Jamie Chriqui: That’s really important. If we could better understand the barriers to walking and biking to school, we can possibly start to address some of those issues. The issues won’t be the same for every community. There are differences, such as terrain and resources. But there are policies and practices and environmental change approaches that most communities can assess and act on to make walking and biking to school a safer option.

We see from the study that something as simple as having a crossing guard for the short time before and after school can make a huge difference in terms of both perceived barriers and actually walking and biking to school. I know that a number of districts have been looking at cutting out crossing guards because of budget constraints, but it’s a relatively low-cost item compared to infrastructure costs, such as installing speed bumps or sidewalks.

Health impact assessments are a critical tool that districts can use to try to really map out some of the ways to increase kids’ physical activity during the day, and walking and biking lot school would be a critical first step.

Weigh In: What efforts is your school district making to help increase the number of school children who walk or ride their bikes to school?

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.