The children most likely to walk or cycle to school live in urban areas, with a single parent, and in an economically disadvantaged home, according to survey results that were published in Pediatrics today by Dr. Roman Pabayo of the University of Montreal Hospital Research Centre and the university’s Department of Social and preventive medicine.
"The study is important for the well-being of children because most children are not meeting physical activity guidelines needed for optimal growth and development," Pabayo explained. "Active transportation to school represents an affordable and easy way to incorporate physical activity in the daily routines of children. In a separate study on children in Quebec, we have actually found significant associations between weight and whether the child cycles or walks to school.” The term active transportation relates to physical exertion, and excludes public transportation, school buses and driving.
Pabayo’s study is unique in that it follows the same group of children as they age throughout the school years, and it shows that children increasingly use “active transport” to travel to school until they reach ten or eleven years of age, at which point the trend then reverses.
The study looked at the habits of 7690 children, and it revealed that a variety of interesting factors are associated with transport choice. For example, children of parents who reported that their child had many friends in their area were more than twice as likely to increase their active commuting over two years in comparison to other children. Adolescents were less likely to increase their active transportation if there were no traffic lights or pedestrian crossings on their route to school. Whether a child has someone with whom to commute or older siblings were found to be particularly influential.
Some municipalities are already taking an avant-gardist approach to break down these kinds of barriers. In Montreal, for example, the downtown Plateau Mont-Royal borough recently rearranged a thoroughfare shortcut that ran near a school. The results were immediate, and dramatic. While vehicle commuters fumed (literally and figuratively) a few blocks away, a recent study showed that the number of cyclists on the street doubled within a month of the measure being taken.
While the move attracted criticism from some politicians, interest groups and citizens, the political party behind the initiative - Projet Montreal - is satisfied that it has taken a step to improve the wellbeing of Montreal’s children. “Promoting active transportation among children and their families is one of the objectives of Projet Montréal’s program,” Director General Patrick Cigana explained to Rutherford Mansfield. “Proposed policies to improve active transportation include increasing the number of bike paths and better connecting existing ones, establishing pedestrian-friendly streets by changing the direction of one-way streets or by integrating physical impediments such as speed bumps or wider sidewalks in the urban fabric, and developing convenient, attractive and safe walking routes leading to metro stations, primary and secondary schools, parks and other places where there is a large concentration of pedestrians, especially children.”
Future studies must however be undertaken to explain the range of trends and factors identified in the University of Montreal study. “Why are children from Saskatchewan and Manitoba the most likely to use active transport at a given point in their lives? What about children from poorer backgrounds? Why are there different patterns as children age across socio-demographic and regional lines?” Pabayo asked. “If we can gain a better understanding of the factors that influence how children get to school, we may be able to encourage more families to bike or walk to school, leading to lifelong healthy behaviors.”
- Study in Pediatrics: www.pediatrics.org/cgi/doi/10.1542/peds.2010-1612
- University of Montreal press release
Image: Boys in Brooklyn, 1974, Danny Lyon, National Archives and Record Administration.