2017 - Research

Associations Between the Physical, Sociocultural, and Safety Environments and Active Transportation to School

A growing body of research shows that there are three primary domains that influence young people’s active transportation to school: the physical environment, the sociocultural environment, and the safety environment. 

Key takeaway:

  • A growing body of research shows that there are three primary domains that influence young people’s active transportation to school: the physical environment, the sociocultural environment, and the safety environment. However, little is known about how these three domains interact and the extent to which they impact active school commuting. According to this study, the physical environment and the sociocultural environment significantly impact active transportation to school while the safety environment has an indirect and complex effect. To better promote active transportation to school, programming efforts and research should focus on perceptions of safety.

 

Results:

Physical Environment

  • To evaluate the physical environment, this study used ten variables (i.e., lack of sidewalks, high vehicular traffic, absence of other children and/or parents, etc.) to categorize perceptions of the built environment, traffic, and distance. Research increasingly shows that perceptions, as opposed to objective measurements, of the physical environment are more significant in shaping one’s travel behaviors.
  • Elements of the physical environment that most deterred active commuting to school were dangerous streets (i.e., lack of sidewalks, dangerous street crossings, lack of crossing guards, and high vehicular traffic) and distance. In this study, children who lived over two miles away from school did not walk or bike to/from school, and only six children who lived between one and two miles from school did.

Sociocultural Environment

  • The main indicators used to evaluate the sociocultural environment are norms, attitudes, and enjoyment. The power of norms in active transportation to school is a burgeoning concept, as evidence increasingly points to how children are more likely to walk or bike to school if they perceive it to be normal and acceptable. Attitudes toward walking and biking—particularly whether a child enjoys walking and biking and wants to do so—are also salient factors impacting active transport.
  • The “safety in numbers” idea applies to active transport to school: Parents are more likely to allow their children to walk or bike to school if they feel that enough other parents allow it and enough other people are walking and biking and will therefore help look out for their children.

Safety Environment

  • The safety environment indirectly affects both physical environment and sociocultural environment in active transportation to school. Safety is in the eye of the beholder. In this study, parents’ heightened perceptions of safety could override barriers in the physical environment. For instance, the absence of a sidewalk wasn’t a barrier for active transportation to school if parents felt that their children would be safe walking or biking to school because they felt they had watchful neighbors who they trusted. Conversely, parents with safety concerns could prevent their children from walking or biking to school even if the physical environment is safe and conducive to active commuting (i.e., quality sidewalks, low traffic volumes, etc.).
  • Safety also has an indirect influence on the sociocultural environment. People living in areas with more trust and social cohesion have more positive perceptions of their neighborhood and may be more likely to walk or bike. This corroborates existing research that show that people who trust their neighbors and feel a stronger sense of community are more likely to be physically active.
  • Overall, safety plays a nuanced and significant role in active transportation to school. For example, parents who drive their children to school may feel that they are protecting them from traffic danger. However, more parents driving their children to school will exacerbate traffic problems, and increased traffic correlates with fewer people walking and biking. This may diminish trust and social cohesion among neighbors, which may then create a self-reinforcing cycle whereby more parents drive their children to school since they feel that is safer.

 

Implications:

  • Since perceptions of safety significantly impact travel mode and behavior, more research, programming, and policy efforts should focus on understanding and addressing safety concerns.
  • The significance of intangible factors that don’t directly relate to schools, transportation, or walking and biking, such as norms, attitudes, trust, and social cohesion, in active transportation to school suggests that effective programming to encourage active transportation to school should be more community-driven, instead of focusing on schools and their immediate surroundings.
  • Expanding the focus of interventions beyond school sites doesn’t have to be difficult. Existing programs, such as the walking school bus and walk/bike to school days invite parental and other adult involvement. This, in turn, promotes feelings of trust, reciprocity, social cohesion, and safety.

 

Methods:

  • Researchers selected a racially diverse suburban school district outside of Phoenix, Arizona that had received a Safe Routes to School grant and had implemented educational and enforcement strategies over three years. They administered questionnaires to parents/guardians of children in third to eighth grades in six elementary schools and two middle schools in the district. Items on the questionnaire were largely adapted from The Safe Routes to School Parent Survey about Walking and Biking to School, the Active Where? Parent–Child Survey, and the US General Social Survey. The researchers then did a logistic regression analysis to determine the influence of the physical environment, sociocultural environment, and safety environment on whether a child walked or biked to school.  

 

Ross, A.; Rodriguez, A.; and Searle, M. (2017). Associations Between the Physical, Sociocultural, and Safety Environments and Active Transportation to School. American Journal of Health Education, 48(3).