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Then and Now — Barriers and Solutions

I. Active Transportation to/from School

Thirty years ago, the sight of children walking or biking to school was common. In fact, nearly 90% of children who lived within a mile of school used active transportation (i.e., walking or bicycling) as their primary mode of travel (USDOT, 1972). In recent years, the rate of active transport has declined dramatically (see Figure 1).

Fig 1. Active transport to school: 1969 National Personal Transportation Survey (NPTS) versus 2001 National Household Transportation Survey (NHTS)

Fig. 1. Active Transport to School
Among Youth 5 to 18 Years of Age

In 1969, 42% of children walked or biked to school, any distance.  In 2001, 16% of children walked or biked to school any distance.  Among those living less than 1 mile, 87% walked or biked in 1969 versus 63% in 2001; and among those living less than 2 miles, 49% walked or biked in 2001 versus 18% in 2001.

Source: 1969 Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey  (USDOT, 1972) and 2001 National Household Travel Survey  (analyzed by S. Ham DNPA, Spring 2005)

Why the drastic decline?
Parents of schoolchildren most commonly report: distance to school, traffic danger, adverse weather conditions, fear of crimes against children, and crime in the neighborhood as barriers to active transport. Each of these barriers is discussed below.

II. Barriers to Active Transportation to/from School

Examining each of the factors that parents currently report as barriers over time may provide more insight into the decline in active transportation to/from school.

1. Distance
a) Between 1968 and 2001, the number of school decreased by about 1,000 (70,879 to 69,697) while the number of students increased by over 2 million (NCES, 2003). Consequently, fewer students live within a mile of their school as compared to earlier times. This results in larger schools located further from home than small neighborhood schools for many school children. Hence, distance to school has change over time (see Figures 2a and 2b).

Fig 2a. Distance to School for Youth 5 to 18
Years of Age, NPTS 1969

In 1969, 34% of children lived less than a mile from school, 18% lived between 1 mile and 1.9 miles, 15% lived between 2 miles and 2.9 miles, and 33% lived 3 or more miles from school.

Fig 2b. Distance to School for Youth 5 to 18
Years of Age, NHTS 2001

In 2001, 21% of children lived less than a mile from school, 14% lived between 1 mile and 1.9 miles, 15% lived between 2 miles and 2.9 miles, and 50% lived 3 or more miles from school.

As shown in Figures 2a and 2b, a smaller percentage of children live within 1 mile (34% v 21%) and 2 miles (52 v 35) of school. This potentially accounts for some decline in active transport to school. However, it does not explain it all; active transport to school has also significantly declined among children who still live less than 1 or 2 miles from school (see fig. 1).

2. Weather
Figures 3a and 3b show the average temperature and average number of days of precipitation for four cities across four regions of the United States (North, South, Central, and West).

Fig 3a. Average Annual Temperature in Degrees Fahrenheit 1970 1980 1990 2000
Boston, MA 50.9 50.7 53.2 50.6
Nashville, TN 58.8 59.2 62.1 59.7
San Francisco, CA 57.0 57.4 58.8 57.3
Topeka, KS 54.1 54.8 55.8 56.0

Fig 3b. Days of Precipitation per Year in inches 1970 1980 1990 2000
Boston, MA 77 62 76 81
Nashville, TN 91 69 77 66
San Francisco, CA 51 26 30 51
Topeka, KS 56 46 69 51
Source: National Climatic Data Center

As shown in Figures 3a. and b., it appears there have been some slight variations in weather patterns over the past 30 years. However, there is no distinct pattern to these changes over time. Therefore, it does not seem likely that changes in weather account for the decline in active transport.

3. Fear of crimes against children
An additional barrier to active transport to and from school mentioned by parents is fear of crimes against children, especially child abduction. While there is no trend data for younger children, the risk of violent crimes against youth aged 12–19 years has actually dropped in the past 30 years and of those numbers, the rate of youth abduction is low in school areas.

a) Violent Crimes

  1. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has calculated rates of violent crimes (i.e., homicide, rape, robbery, and simple and aggravated assault) among 12–19 year olds since 1973.
  2. In 1973 the reported rate of violent crimes against children aged 12-19 was approximately 80 cases per 1,000 children. Thirty years later, in 2003 the rate has dropped to approximately 50 per 1,000 youth.

Source: Violent victimization rates by age, 1973–2003, 2004

b) Child Abduction

  1. Kidnapping makes up less than 2% of all violent crimes against youth.
  2. There are three types of kidnappings against children, family, acquaintance, and stranger.
  3. The Office of Juvenile Justice has found very few (4%) of all kidnappings occur in the vicinity of a school.

Source: Finklehor & Ormrod, 2000

4. Traffic
Due to traffic congestion, the national "total hours of delay" rose from 0.7 billion in 1982 to 3.6 billion in 2002, representing over a 500% increase (Schrank & Lomax, 2005).

Taken together, these facts suggest that indeed, the volume of traffic has changed over time. The next logical question is, has this traffic change caused an increase in pedestrian deaths or injuries?

Figures 8a. and b. shows the rate of youth (aged 5–15 years) killed or injured in pedestrian — traffic related incidents. As shown, the percentage has actually dropped over time (1995 to 2002), though the same data are not available for 30 years ago.

Fig 8a. Rate of Pedestrian
Deaths per Traffic Deaths Among
All Youth 5 to 15 Years of Age

In 1995, the rate was 1.33 per 100,000; in 2002, the rate was 0.7 per 100,000

Fig 8b. Rate of Pedestrian
Injuries per Traffic Deaths Among
All Youth 5 to 15 Years of Age

In 1995, the rate was 57.3 per 100,000; in 2002, the rate was 33.2 per 100,000

Source: Traffic Safety Facts, 2002; Traffic Safety Facts, 1995

Furthermore, the pedestrian injury/death rate declined 51% from 1987 to 2000 among children ages 14 years and under; the corresponding bicycling injury / death rate declined 60%. It must be noted, however, that decreased walking or bicycling among children may have contributed to this downward trend (NHTSA data published by Safe Kids, 2003.)

Other Traffic Related Issues

  1. 50% of children hit by cars near schools are hit by cars driven by parents of students (Kallins, SR2S)
  2. In 1999, a national Safe Kids Campaign survey found 2/3 of drivers exceeded the posted speed limit in school zones during the 30-minute period before and after school. (National Safe Kids Campaign, 2002)
  3. A national observational survey found that many motorists at intersections in school zones and residential neighborhoods violated stop signs (pedestrian injury fact sheet, 2004)
    1. 45% by not coming to a complete stop
    2. 37% by rolling through
    3. 7% by not even slowing down

III. Moving Towards a Solution to Active Transportation to/from School

A variety of factors that have been reported as barriers were examined as possible explanations for the decreased percentage of children who walk and/or bike to and from school. Data shows that indeed, traffic volume around schools and distance to school have increased and therefore may have contributed to some decrease in active transport to school. However, although weather and fear of crime are cited as barriers to children walking and biking to and from school, adverse weather conditions and violent crime rates for older children have not increased over the time period. To increase the number of children who participate in active transport to school, it is important to address the barriers that have changed over time (distance and traffic) while not forgetting that although the other barriers have not changed for many children, they may be very real concerns for some families.

What do we do? Where do we turn?

Safe Routes to School (SR2S) puts forth the 4 Es as the key to a solution: Engineering, Enforcement, Education, and Encouragement. These 4 Es can be applied to the two barriers that we know have changed: Distance and Traffic.

1. Distance
A primary solution to combat the problem of distance to school is to examine school siting. Bringing back smaller neighborhood schools rather than large facilities built on the outskirts of town is already being considered in many states and localities. Because school siting is a long-term process, an interim solution is to establish meeting places within a mile of school and create Walking School Buses* where adults can accompany groups of children walking to school. Having the adult supervision addresses the barrier related to the fear of crime and allows for the teaching of pedestrian skills to children. Teaching pedestrian skills is the Education E and the Walking School Bus is the Encouragement E

2. Traffic
There are multiple solutions from the Engineering and Enforcement Es for combating traffic danger in school areas, including

  1. Enforced Speed Zones (Kallins, SR2S)
    Lowered speed zones: Reduced child pedestrian casualties by 70%
  2. Traffic Calming
    Speed humps: Speed humps were associated with a 53-60% reduction in the odds of injury or death among children struck by an automobile in their neighborhood. (Tester et al, 2004)
  3. Increased sidewalks and bike paths to and around school areas
  4. Police patrolling
  5. School policy change
    According to a survey conducted in 1999, 7% of schools have policies that restrict children from walking or biking to school.

For communities interested in increasing active transport to and from school, it may also be beneficial to address parents' reported barriers of fear of crimes against children as well as adverse weather with the Education Es — to understand the risk of crimes in their neighborhood and to learn pedestrian safety skills, and the Encouragement E — to dress for the weather and to enjoy being outdoors.

The suggestions mentioned above are just a sample of the many creative and effective ideas that communities may use to increase the percentage of children who walk or bike to and from school. More resources are listed below to assist individuals and communities in creating "Safe Routes to School."

Helpful Resources:

IV. End Note

Rates of walking and biking to school have declined over time while the barriers of distance and traffic have increased. Healthy People 2010 Objective 22-14b is to increase the proportion of trips to school of 1 mile or less from 31% to 50%. Strategies that include behavioral (e.g.,. walking school busses), environmental (e.g., crossing signal lights), and policy (e.g., enforcing slower speed limits) are needed to help reach this objective. As an example, Marin County California was able to improve rates of walking by 64% after implementing Safe Routes To School (SR2S; Staunton 2003). Currently, there is federal legislation pending (SAFETEA) that would support SR2S in all states.


Bureau of Justice Statistics (2004). Violent Victimization Rates by age, 1973–2003

Beaumont, Constance. (2003). State Policies & School Facilities: How States can Support or Undermine Neighborhood Schools & Community Preservation. National Trust for Historic Preservation. May 2003.

Dellinger, A. (2002). Barriers to Children Walking and Biking to School— United States, 1999. MMWR. 51(32) 701–704. August 2002.

Finklehor, D; Ormrod, R. (2000). Kidnapping of Juveniles: Patterns from NIBRS. Juvenile Justice Bulletin. U.S. Department of Justice: Office of Justice Programs: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. June 2000.

Hedley AA, Ogden CL, Johnson CL, Carroll MD, Curtin LR, Flegal KM. Prevalence of overweight and obesity among US children, adolescents, and adults, 1999–2002. JAMA. 2004 Jun 16; 291(23):2847–50.

Kallins, Wendy. Safe Routes to School. US Department of Transportation: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Mannino, D; Homa, D; Akinbami, L; Moorman, J; Gwynn, C; Redd, S. (2002). Surveillance for Asthma— 1980–1999. MMWR: CDC Surveillance Summaries. v51nSS-1. March 29, 2002. PDF file (PDF-359k)

National Center for Education Statistics - tables 36 (enrollment) and 85 (schools) PDF file (PDF-37k) and PDF file (PDF-29k)

National Safe Kids Campaign: Promoting Child Safety to Prevent Unintentional Injury.
Research: Child Pedestrian Safety: The Problem. (2002).

National Safe Kids Campaign. Report to the Nation: Trends in Unintentional Childhood Injury Mortality, 1987–2000. May 2003. {data from NHTSA: Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), a census of all traffic deaths/crashes in the US; and General Estimates System (GES), a nationally representative sample of police-reported crashes}

Pedestrian Injury Fact Sheet. National SAFE KIDS Campaign (NSKC). Washington DC: NSKC, 2004.*

Pickrell, D; Schimek, P. (1998). Trends in Personal Motor Vehicle Ownership and Use: Evidence from the Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey. Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey—1995. April 1998.

Rideout, V; Foehr, U; Roberts, D; Brodie, M. (1999). Kids & Media: The New Millennium. A Kaiser Family Foundation Report. November 1999.

Schrank, D; Lomax, T. (2005). 2005 Annual Urban Mobility Report. Texas Transportation Institute. May 2005.

Staunton CE, Hubsmith D, Kallins W. Promoting safe walking and biking to school: the
Marin County success story. Am J Public Health. 2003 Sep;93(9):1431–4.

Tester, J; Rutherford, G; Wald, Z; Rutherford, M. (2004). A Matched Case—Control Study Evaluating the Effectiveness of Speed Humps in Reducing Child Pedestrian Injuries. American Journal of Public Health. v94n4. April 2004.

Traffic Safety Facts 1995—Pedestrians. (1995). National Center for Statistics and Analysis of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Traffic Safety Facts 2002—Pedestrians. (2002). National Center for Statistics and Analysis of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. DOT HS 809 614. 2002.

U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration. 1969 National Personal Transportation Survey: Travel to School, June 1972 [online]. 2003. [cited 2005 July 21]. Available from URL:

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Page last reviewed: February 25, 2008
Page last updated:  February 25, 2008
Content Source: Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion