It is 8:04 am on a Tuesday morning in a small Northern Germany village, September 1989. A handful of kids play by the side of the road, unsupervised by an adult. We are waiting for the public transit bus to take us to school in the neighbouring village. This was only my second school day – I was 6 years old.
Some 20-odd years later, I was studying for my PhD in England. Like many other health researchers, I was interested in understanding what behaviours can help young people lead healthier, more active lives. One of my papers showed that youth who walked or cycled were fitter and more active than those using motorized transport. The real discovery for me, however, and one that has since certainly shaped my research focus, was the startling reality of how many English students were regularly driven to school by car. Practically unheard of during my childhood in Germany, I couldn’t help but wonder: what happened?
Independent school travel – a thing from the past?
A recent study from the Policy Studies Institute at the University of Westminster sheds some light on this puzzle. The research looked at transport to school in England and Germany during the past 40 years. In England, the number of children who were traveling between school and home without an adult dropped from 86% in 1971 to only 25% in 2010. At the same time, no such drastic drop was observed in Germany, where far more children were allowed to travel independently and at younger ages.
Why is independent school travel so important?
Independent school travel is related to ‘independent mobility’, which refers to a child’s ability to move and play freely in the neighbourhood without adult supervision. In turn, this is related to greater physical activity levels. Children are naturally more active outdoors, but they may also have an empowering independence to go to destinations that encourage physical activity, such as a park. In addition, independent mobility promotes higher levels of sociability and community cohesion (see original paper for more info).
Why aren’t they doing it?
The cross-cultural comparison between England and Germany suggests that declines in active and independent travel are not just a natural consequence of modern life. We can’t yet explain with precision the difference between the two countries. Certainly, matters are likely to be different again here in North America. In fact, transport to school is affected by a whole host of complex factors, including policies, infrastructure, as well as personal preference and convenience. But we know that two main barriers to active, independent travel to school are distance and parental safety concerns. There is little we can do about the distance, but we and many other researchers around the world are working hard to better understand what elements of the neighbourhood environment are important so that we can create and preserve environments in which children can roam freely and independently.
By Christine Voss, Postdoctoral Fellow