The Toronto Star reports that 65 percent of Canadian children live within a 30-minute walk of their school, but only 35 percent walk on a regular basis, and fewer are walking every year. For example, In the U.S., only 12.7% of K–8 (i.e., 6–14 years) students usually walked or biked to school in 2009 compared with 47.7% in 1969.
At the University of Toronto there is a fantastic team lead by Professor Guy Faulkner, focusing on studying the link between health and walking to school. Since 2009, Faulkner and his team have published 15 papers on the topic and last Wednesday presented some of their findings at a forum entitled “What Happened to Walking? Encouraging Active School Travel in Toronto.”
The best news that came out of the report is that Toronto does not seem to have experienced a dramatic decline in the number of children who walk to school. The team’s study found that an average of 70 percent of children regularly walked to school, while only 26 percent were getting to school by car. The team also found that levels of walking were relatively consistant across the city. The only area where children tend to walk less is in new wealthier neighbourhoods in Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough. Also encouraging is that around 90 percent of parents believed that their neighbourhoods are easy to walk around.
The team also discovered that walking is really important to the health of children. It’s obvious but well worth repeating that children who walk to school get a lot more exercise during the school week than children who get a drive. For children who do walk, the trip to and from school represents nearly 20 percent of their daily exercise.
Of concern is that the team discovered that girls were less likely to walk to school, which limited their ability to freely move around their neighbourhoods. As Faulkner concludes:
Girls tend to face greater barriers to active school transport; they are more likely to perceive travel distances as being too far to walk, have elevated safety concerns (from girls themselves and also their parents), and are less likely to freely move around their neighbourhood or city without adult supervision, as a result of reduced independent mobility.
Urban planners and community-based organizations who are interested in improving the built environment to encourage active mobility (e.g., walking, cycling) among children should more consciously address the barriers that girls face.
Generally, the stats within the city of Toronto are positive, but there is reason to believe that the barriers to walking are far higher outside the city. Studies that look at the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) find that the percentage of of 11-13 year olds who walked to school between 1986 and 2001 declined from 53 to 42 percent. As the region grows, the focus really needs to be on how to integrate the schools with the new neighbourhoods around them, which are being built in a way that is denying children an important source of exercise and independence.