Are We Driving Our Kids to Unhealthy Habits
The 2013 Active Healthy Kids Canada Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth released in May, 2013. It states that many Canadian children and youth are driven to and from destinations when walking, biking or other forms of Active Transportation could be used. This report assigns a “D” grade for Active Transportation in Canada. This is an excerpt from the report at Active Healthy Kids
Active transportation – walking, biking, in-line skating and skateboarding to get to and from places such as school, parks and shops – has long been known to be an important source of physical activity for children and youth. If children walked for all trips of less than one kilometre rather than being driven, they would take an average of 2,238 additional steps per day! This translates to approximately 15-20 minutes of walking and thus has the potential to make a substantial contribution to the 60 minutes of daily physical activity kids need for overall health. Imagine the potential impact this small change could have on increasing overall physical activity levels in Canadian kids! One of the great things about active transportation is that it can be easily integrated into everyday life with little or even no cost. And its benefits are significant. Active transportation could help to reverse the recent decline in rates of walking and biking for transportation, and thus presents a major opportunity for improving health among children and youth. Research suggests that, given the choice, most children would prefer to walk or bike to school rather than take a bus or be driven by their parents. In addition to improving overall physical health, active transportation may:
› Improve fitness and heart health
› Increase academic achievement
› Provide social opportunities
› Reduce stress
› Improve air quality and reduce risk of lung diseases (e.g., asthma)
Kids who use active transportation to get to and from school can accumulate up to 45 more minutes daily of a moderate to vigorous intensity level of physical activity compared to kids who get to school via car, train or bus. These kids tend to be more active across the whole day, not just during the school commute. Driving our kids to and from school may be robbing them of an important source of daily physical activity.
How many children engage in active transportation?
In Canada, a recent survey found that although 58% of parents walked to school when they were kids, only 28% of their children walk to school today. In just one decade (2000 to 2010), the proportion of 5- to 17-year-olds using only inactive modes of transportation (e.g., bus, train, car) to get to and from school has increased from 51% to 62%. Many different data sources in different age groups suggest that only 25-35% of Canadian children and youth walk, bike or wheel to and from school. This percentage increases with age during elementary school, but then decreases as children move to secondary school. In youth aged 15-17, the daily time spent walking decreased from 17 to 11 minutes between 1992 and 2010; this decline was particularly evident in girls. There are also large regional variations in the percentage of children who use active transportation.
› Walking is the most common travel mode among elementary schoolchildren in inner-city Toronto, but children and youth from suburban areas are mostly driven to school.
› Active transportation is more common in the territories and British Columbia, and less common in Atlantic Canada and Québec.
› Active transportation is more common in urban areas, especially in cities with 100,000-250,000 inhabitants.
Car trips on the rise
While rates of walking are declining, the percentage of adolescents who take all of their trips by car has gone up over time. This trend leads to more car traffic in school surroundings – and a sizable proportion of this traffic comes from parents whose children live within a reasonable walking distance but are nevertheless driven to and from school.
For example, in the Greater Toronto Area, more than 30% of 8- to 14-year-olds who live within two kilometres of school are driven. Parents may feel that they are keeping their children safe by driving them to school. Ironically, they are contributing to increased traffic volumes around schools (and thus the risk of road accidents) for children who use active transportation, creating a vicious circle. In this context, it is an uphill battle to promote active transportation to individuals who are in the habit of taking most trips by car. Similarly, an international study found that today’s children are less likely to be allowed to walk or bike to neighbourhood destinations (e.g., schools, parks, and a friend’s place) without adult supervision. This remains true in Canada even though 66% of adults from most provinces and territories agree or strongly agree that their neighbourhood is safe for children to walk in for travel to and from school.
Why don’t children use active transportation?
Distance between home and school is the strongest reason why children and youth do not walk or bike to school. Active transportation is also less likely when parents perceive that driving saves them time and/or is more convenient (e.g., dropping children to school on the way to work). Road and neighbourhood safety (e.g., “stranger danger”) concerns are other important barriers to active transportation. In New York City, the implementation of a “Safe Routes to School” program has led to a 44% decrease in road injury among children and youth. An equivalent program (“Active and Safe Routes to School”) exists in Canada. The organization of “walking school buses” – groups of children who walk to school along a set route with adult supervision – can be a successful strategy to reduce safety concerns and increase physical activity.
Steps we can take
Recommendations for increasing active transportation
Encourage and support their children to actively travel to and from school as well as to other destinations friends’ houses, parks, etc.). Share responsibility with other parents for supervision of younger kids as they travel to and from school and activities (e.g., take turns leading a walking school bus). Park the car a short distance from school and/or other destinations and walk from there when it is not possible for their kids to walk the whole way.
Ensure that bike racks are provided in highly visible areas on school property. Consider children’s travel needs when deciding where to build new schools. Facilitate the implementation of school travel plans, walking school buses, road safety education and other measures to ensure active and safe routes to school.
Develop joint planning mechanisms and protocols to ensure that the built environment supports walking and biking as an easy choice for children and youth. Encourage employers to offer flexible hours that would allow parents to support active travel opportunities for their kids. Enforce traffic-calming measures in communities around schools and parks (zebra crossings, speed bumps, sidewalks, flashing lights, etc.).