Correlates of Walking to School and Implications for Public Policies

Survey Results from Parents of Elementary School Children in Austin, Texas

A survey of parents of elementary schoolchildren in Austin, Texas reveals a 15-minute walk to school, accompanied by an adult, appears to be acceptable, as long as children do not need to travel through high-traffic or unsafe areas. This survey is part of a supplement to the Journal of Public Health Policy reporting on the 2008 Active Living Research Conference.

As the rate of children's obesity has risen, the percentage of U.S. students who walk or bike to school has dropped from 41 percent in 1969 to just 13 percent in 2001. Despite this, little is known about why some kids walk to school and others do not. In this study, parents of 2,695 students from 19 elementary schools in central and suburban Austin, Texas reflecting a full range of sociodemographics, filled out questionnaires regarding how their children get to and from school.

Key Findings:

  • Around 30 percent of students walk to/from school. Slightly more walk home from school than to school.
  • An adult accompanies students walking to/from school 75 percent of the time.
  • Over 75 percent of walking trips to/from school take less than 15 minutes. Less than 3 percent walk if their trip is more than 30 minutes.
  • Children are less likely to walk if their parents are better educated; their family owns a car; a school bus is available; or the walking route to school is perceived as unsafe.
  • By contrast to findings in studies of adult walking, children were less likely to walk if they needed to pass convenience stores, office buildings and bus stops, perhaps because of the surrounding automobile activity. Highways also were barriers to walking.

This study has many policy implications, including raising questions about how schools are located and attendance areas determined. Although current policies encourage school consolidation and building new larger schools on big parcels of land outside of central development, renovating an existing neighborhood school may allow more kids to have safer, shorter walks to and from school. Improving walking route safety more directly through better sidewalks, road crossings and traffic slowing also should be a priority.