How children get to school is often perceived to be only a physical health issue, but studies show the benefits of active travel – and the detriments of being driven – go well beyond the physical well-being of our children.
That’s why Metrolinx’s Regional Transportation Plan, The Big Move, calls for 60% of children in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) to be walking or cycling to school by 2031. School travel choices affect everyone’s morning commute, because 20% of peak hour morning traffic is connected to getting students to school. As a result, we at Smart Commute are providing ongoing support for active and sustainable school travel, working with local, regional and provincial groups and individuals to encourage policy development, planning and programming to meet that objective.
Definition: Active and Sustainable School Travel
Traveling to school actively (walk, bike or roll) and/or using other sustainable modes such as transit, carpooling or school busing for longer distances.
The Decline of Active Travel
A study commissioned by Metrolinx across the GTHA showed a 13% decline in walking or biking to school between 1986 and 2011, along with a 7% decrease in those taking public transit. They’re getting to – and from – school instead by car, with a whopping two-fold increase in that mode of travel for students over the same period. The decline is particularly acute among 11-13-year olds, with a 17% decrease in active travel modes, and girls are 5% less likely than boys to take active modes. For all genders in that age group, car travel is almost three times as prevalent as it was in 1986.
The GTHA data reflect national trends. According to a Participaction Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth published in 2015, only 24% of 5- to 17-year-olds in Canada use only active travel modes getting to and from school, while 62% use only inactive modes. That gap has widened over the past decade. Only 9% of 5- to 17-year-olds in Canada (14% of 5- to 11-year-olds and 5% of 12- to 17-year-olds) meet the government recommendation of at least 60 minutes of Moderate to Vigorous Physical Activity (MVPA) daily.
This isn’t because schools are further away. The fact is, more children these days are being driven over shorter distances than ever before. This trend contributes to childhood obesity and classroom behavioral issues, increases traffic congestion and its resulting risks and frustrations, and saps the community vitality that comes from the simple act of having our feet on the street.
Why Does it Matter?
Active school travel delivers holistic benefits that impact not only the individuals involved, but entire schools and communities. Many parents understand these benefits because they experienced them as students themselves; nationally, 58% of parents report having walked or biked to school when they were young, compared to only 28% of their children.
For the Body
According to Participaction, a scant 9% of 5- to 17-year-olds in Canada meet the daily recommendation of at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous-intensity physical activity and this percentage has remained at this low rate since the 2007-09 Canadian Health Measures Survey. Walking or biking can give students some of their essential daily dose of exercise while accomplishing something they have to do anyway: getting to and from school.
By reducing the number of cars in the school zone, air quality will improve and the incidence and severity of asthma in students will also be positively affected.
For the Mind
It’s well known that physical activity reduces stress in people of all ages. Walking and biking to school also expands a child’s life experience, giving them an increased sense of self-confidence and self-esteem through the successful navigation of their physical world, and through social interaction with other students and their community along the route.
Walking is a means of gaining good life experience, providing an opportunity for children to be independent, think responsibly, and make decisions for themselves.
For the Classroom
Walking or cycling to school not only contributes to a child’s weekly physical activity requirements. Research and pilot projects have demonstrated that
- Physical activity on the way to school leads to a more energized and attentive student
- Academic test scores are higher on average for children who engage in active travel
- In-class behavioural problems are reduced
For the School Zone
Decreasing the number of cars converging during student drop-off and pick-up
- Reduces potential accidents between cars and people
- Improves the air quality in the area
- Frees school staff from traffic control duties so they can devote more time to student learning
- Reduces infrastructure costs involved in creating car-oriented drop-off areas.
For the Community
Walking to school teaches children about where they live. Time spent in active travel is vital to their ‘street literacy’ – their ability to safely navigate their neighbourhood – and to their sense of themselves as part of a larger community. It also inspires their natural curiosity about the world around them, both the urban and the natural environment, as they make their way to and from school. These in turn set the foundation for children to become responsible and capable adult citizens who will contribute to the ongoing vitality of their communities throughout their lives.
The travel choices our children make today can create lifelong habits, and because today’s children become tomorrow’s commuters, Metrolinx wants to help them and their families make choices that are healthy and sustainable.
Our Children Know
Children themselves recognize these benefits. Hear what they have to say in the Stepping It Up pilot project.