Background: Rising rates of overweight children have focused attention on walking and biking to school as a means to increase children's physical activity levels. Despite this attention, there has been little documentation of trends in school travel over the past 30 years or analysis of what has caused the changes in mode choice for school trips.
Methods: This article analyzes data from the 1969, 1977, 1983, 1990, 1995, and 2001 National Personal Transportation Survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Transportation to document the proportion of students actively commuting to school in aggregate and by subgroups and analyze the relative influence of trip, child, and household characteristics across survey years. All analyses were done in 2006.
Results: The National Personal Transportation Survey data show that in 1969, 40.7% (95% confidence interval [CI]=37.9-43.5) of students walked or biked to school; by 2001, the proportion was 12.9% (95% CI=11.8-13.9). Distance to school has increased over time and may account for half of the decline in active transportation to school. It also has the strongest influence on the decision to walk or bike across survey years.
Conclusions: Declining rates of active transportation among school travelers represents a worrisome loss of physical activity. Policymakers should continue to support programs designed to encourage children to walk to school such as Safe Routes to School and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's KidsWalk. In addition, officials need to design policies that encourage schools to be placed within neighborhoods to ensure that the distance to school is not beyond an acceptable walking distance.