Distance is the strongest determining factor for how teenagers feel about walking or cycling to school according to new research.
Auckland University of Technology Adjunct Professor Sandy Mandic, who leads the BEATS (Built Environment and Active Transport to School) Study, says encouraging active transport to school can address low rates of physical activity among New Zealand adolescents but needs to consider the impact of distance on the attitudes of teenagers and their parents.
The BEATS Research Team surveyed 1401 Dunedin high school pupils on their perceptions towards walking and cycling to school. The students were categorised by the distance they lived from school; 32% within ‘reasonable’ walking distance (up to 2.25km), 21% within cycling distance (2.25km to 4km), and 47% beyond cycling distance (more than 4km).
The findings, published in the Journal of Transport and Health, showed less than 25% overall walked or cycled to school and that social support and personal confidence for active transport decreased as distance increased. Meanwhile perceptions of environmental and safety barriers such as traffic volume, lack of cycle lanes, dangerous crossing, hilly terrain, weather, and poor lighting increased with increasing distance. When walking related barriers were analysed by distance 7.5% within walking distance, 14.5% of those within cycling and 44.8% of those beyond cycling distance reported safety concerns. Safety concerns for cycling rose sharply with increasing distance—from 35.4% to 43.7% and 63.9%.
Adjunct Professor Mandic says it is important to understand these concerns and the factors behind them and for planners to use these insights to enable mixed modes of transport. She says reporting active transport to school rates as an aggregate without differentiating walking versus cycling, and without considering home-to-school distance may lead to misinterpretations and not provide accurate information for tailoring strategies and interventions to encourage active transport to school.
"The findings also indicate that reporting safety concerns as an average of the total without differentiation, may exaggerate safety concerns and discourage active transport to school. This especially applies to regions where a substantial proportion of young people live beyond walking and cycling distance to school.”
Professor Mandic is now with the AUT Human Potential Centre which researches the impact of built environments on physical activity and individual and community wellbeing.