Active School Travel

When our program Smart Commute released a series of reports last spring on trends around kids and active school travel, we had an ulterior motive. Other than the obvious that kids walking and/or cycling more means healthier kids, we were trying to help cultivate smart commuters of the future.

In 2011, there were at least 1.4 million children under the age of 18 in the GTHA. These people will grow up and become tomorrow’s adult commuters, and their choices will partly be based on the travel experiences accumulated in childhood. By increasing awareness of trends and options, we hope to influence the choices people make now, and in turn, have a positive impact on the choices they’ll make in the future.

The “School Travel in the GTHA” reports compiled data from surveys conducted every five years between 1986 and 2011. Ultimately, our research found that there has been a decline in the number of children walking or biking to school over a 25-year period, and the number of children driven to school has more than doubled in that time.  Before you say, “hold on…maybe people are living farther away from schools?” the report shows the relative distance between home and school has changed very little. So what has changed?

We’re in the process of exploring the reasons for the drop in active school travel. For now, we’re relying on anecdotal information from parents and caregivers who cite convenience, safety and weather factors as reasons for their preference for driving.

Smart Commute has been working with various stakeholders to analyze policy, planning and programming that can support parents and caregivers in making active and sustainable choices. Beyond this work, though, parents themselves can look at current routines, identify barriers, and take action by connecting with neighbours to organize walking school buses, or recommending safer road crossings or the installation of bike racks.

Our Regional Transportation Plan envisioned that 60% of children would be walking/cycling to school in the not-so-distant future. With approximately 40% of 11-13 year olds opting for active transportation to school in 2011, we still have a ways to go. Perhaps, parents and administrators alike can make a new school year resolution to promote active sustainable school travel. Forget about our motive to inspire a generation of like-minded transportation nerds. Consider instead the improved health associated with functional activity, the social aspect of encountering neighbours en route, and the environmental benefits of reducing car use. Small changes can have a big impact.