Kids of today are not a big fan of walking or biking to school, and blaming their laziness or their spoiled lifestyle for it won't be entirely appropriate, for according to a new research it is the concern about safety that hinders US children from the activity.
According to a University of Michigan researcher, concerns about safety are the main reason that less than 13 percent of U.S. children walked or biked to school in 2004, compared to more than 50 percent who did so in 1969.
"These concerns are strongly linked to the kind of physical environment children navigate between home and school," said Byoung-Suk Kweon, an environmental and landscape architecture researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR).
"The greener the route, the more likely it is that children will walk and bike," Kweon added.
Using Geographic Information System (GIS) data combined with a survey of 186 parents of 5th through 8th grade students, Kweon found that parents were most concerned about the speed and volume of traffic students would encounter en route to school; the possibility of crime; and the weather.
"In Texas, where we lived when I conducted this study, our sons did not walk to school because we lived too far away," said Kweon.
"In Ann Arbor, they do walk to school. We have a 27 degree rule. If it's colder than that, we drive them; if it's warmer than that, they walk," she added.
In the study, the researcher found that children use sidewalks, not bike lanes, when they ride to school.
To learn more about how the physical environment influences parents' perceptions of safety and their willingness to allow their children walk or bike to school, the research team conducted a series of laboratory-based simulation studies, testing six different pedestrian environments.
"It's very important for parents that there be a separation or buffer between traffic and the sidewalk. They are much more willing to let their children walk when this buffer is at least eight feet wide, and when there are also trees in this area." Trees not only provide shade, but also serve as a sort of vertical barrier between sidewalk and street," she said.
Although improving the physical environment reduces parents' concerns for their children's safety, Kweon found that the social environment-especially the likelihood of crime-strongly affects parental perceptions of safety as well.
"Walking or biking to school helps children develop an early habit of engaging in physical activity, and that can lead to a healthier and more active and healthier population," she said.
The study was supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation and from the Southwest Region University Transportation Center in College Station, Texas.