Walking and Biking to School, Physical Activity and Health Outcomes

Over the past few decades, a number of social and environmental changes have limited children’s access to safe places where they can walk, bike and play. As a result, children and adolescents are less physically active than they were a generation ago. For example, traffic dangers, neighborhoods that lack sidewalks and urban sprawl have contributed to a sharp decline in the number of students ages 5 to 18 who walk or bike to school, from 42 percent in 1969 to only 13 percent in 2001.

This decrease in active transport to school coincided with an alarming increase in childhood obesity. During the past four decades the obesity rate for children ages 6 to 11 has more than quadrupled (from 4.2 to 17 percent), and the obesity rate for adolescents ages 12 to 19 has more than tripled (from 4.6 to 17.6 percent). Policies and practices that address environmental barriers to daily physical activity are critical to preventing obesity among children of all ages, and supporting active transport to school presents an excellent opportunity to increase daily physical activity among youth.

Safe Routes to School (SRTS) is a federal program that creates safe, convenient and fun opportunities for children to bicycle and walk to and from their schools, and aims to help children be more physically active. SRTS focuses on increasing the number of children walking and bicycling to school and improving pedestrian and bicycle travel by building infrastructure such as sidewalks, crosswalks and bicycle lanes. The program also encourages changes in travel behavior, supports increased enforcement of traffic laws around schools and educates communities on the benefits and safety aspects of active transport. This brief summarizes research on active transport to school, physical activity levels and health outcomes. It also explores the factors that influence walking and biking to school, including the impact of SRTS programs.