Background: Children's physical inactivity and obesity are growing public health problems in the U.S., especially among low-income, minority populations. Walking to school may help address these problems.
Methods: This cross-sectional study examined disparities in the environmental support for walking around 73 public elementary schools in Austin TX. GIS was used to measure the neighborhood-level walkability and safety. Field audits were conducted to assess the street-level walkability. Analyses of variance and regressions were performed to analyze economic and ethnic disparities.
Results: For the top-quartile schools with higher poverty or Hispanic student percentages, the surroundings showed higher neighborhood-level walkability with shorter distances to school and more sidewalks compared with the bottom quartile. These areas, however, also had higher crash and crime rates and lower street-level walkability captured by visual quality, physical amenities, maintenance, and perceived safety. In predictions of environmental conditions using poverty and Hispanic student percentages, poverty was associated with many adverse conditions on the street level and with only two favorable situations, shorter distances to school and lower traffic volumes, on the neighborhood level. The Hispanic student percentage did not correlate with most street-level variables, but predicted both increased dangers from traffic and crime and higher neighborhood-level walkability with more sidewalks, greater density, and mixed land uses.
Conclusions: Economic and ethnic disparities exist in the environmental support for walking, suggesting the need for tailored interventions in promoting active living. Low-income, Hispanic children are more likely to live in unsafe areas with poor street environments but with some favorable neighborhood-level conditions.