Beyond Distance: Children’s School Travel Mode Choice

Key takeaway:

  • The maximum distance considered walkable to school varies by individual perceptions and attitudes, particularly parental perceptions of walkability and safety. Education and promotional efforts are also necessary to address perceptual and attitudinal barriers.


  • In this study, children who walked to school were older, had parents with lower education levels, and had fewer cars and driver licenses in the household than children who were driven to school.
  • While parents who drove to school were more likely to consider housing/rent prices, parents who walked to school were more likely to consider proximity to school and neighborhood walkability. This suggests the presence of potential biases related to residential self-selection, whereby people who like walking choose to live in more walkable neighborhoods.
  • Even if they lived in the same/similar locations, significantly more walkers than drivers reported that the school was close enough to walk to. This shows that the maximum distance considered walkable varies by individual perceptions.
  • Positive perceptions of overall walking environments were consistently higher among walkers (i.e., convenience, quiet, enjoyable, nice things to see along the way, such as parks, etc.).
  • A major reason that parents drive their children to school, despite proximity between home and school, is safety concerns (i.e., child will get lost, be taken or hurt by a stranger, or get hit by a car if they walked to school).
  • Parents who drove their children to school disproportionately felt that walking requires too much planning ahead, driving is easier and faster, and their child has too much to carry to walk.
  • Parents of children who walked to school had more positive attitudes towards walking (i.e., it’s enjoyable) and tend to walk often (with and without their children) in their daily routine.
  • Among parents living within 2 miles from schools, only 37.1% of drivers and 26.8% of walkers considered the home-to-school distance to be too far for their child(ren) to walk.
  • The 26.8% that considered the distance too far still chose walking likely due to limited car availability in the household, more positive attitudes towards walking, or more positive perceptions of their environments in terms of safety.
  • 62.9% of parents who drove their children to school perceived the home-to-school distance to be close enough, but they still drove their children to school.
  • Perception of distance close enough for walking significantly differs between walkers and drivers, which shows that other factors (i.e., socioeconomic background, attitudes towards walking, environmental perceptions, etc.) also influence the parental determination of a “walkable” distance to school.
  • Among those who already walk, environmental factors more strongly influence their ideas of walkable distances. Meanwhile, among those who drive, personal factors appeared more important.



  • Since drivers perceived different environmental and personal barriers, the researchers recommend tailored interventions targeting specific groups (such as short-distance drivers), instead of a one-size-fits-all-approach.



  • The researchers studied students attending 22 public elementary schools in the Austin Independent School District. The researchers used 601 child pairs living in the same/similar home location (not from the same household) but using different school travel modes (walking vs. private automobile) to identify more readily modifiable environmental features than the home-to-school distance that can promote walking to/from school.


Lee, C.; Zhu, X.; Yoon, J.; and Varni, J.V. (2013). Beyond Distance: Children’s School Travel Mode Choice. The Society of Behavioral Medicine, 45 (Suppl 1).

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