Over the past several years, the private vehicle has become the predominant mode of travel to school while walking and bicycling rates have decreased. Some suggest that this change in travel behavior contributes to negative health outcomes in children, including increased rates of 1) overweight/obesity through inactivity and 2) pedestrian and bicyclist fatality and injury. A series of recent policies and programs directly attribute the change in travel behavior to school to the urban form of communities. Limited research exists to support this hypothesis, however. The fundamental questions of whether and how urban form impacts a child’s trip to school must to be answered in order to develop effective interventions aimed at increasing rates of walking and bicycling activity and safety.
The research proposes a conceptual framework to examine the nature and shape of the relationships between urban form; interpersonal, demographic and social/cultural factors; parental decision-making and a child’s travel to school. Using parent survey data on children’s travel to school and urban design assessments from twelve elementary school neighborhoods, the relative influence of urban form on the mode choice to school was first determined. Results indicate that urban form elements such as street lights and street widths do affect the probability of a child walking or bicycling to school; however, the affect of these elements is modest compared to other influential variables such as the perceived convenience of driving, country of birth, family support of walking behavior, reported traffic conditions in the neighborhood and perceived distances between home and school.
A second analysis examined how urban form and children’s travel behavior relate by testing the hypothesis of an indirect relationship. The findings show that parent’s feelings of neighborhood safety, traffic safety and/or household transportation options do not intervene in the relationship between urban form and children’s travel behavior. Socio-demographic characteristics and parent’s attitudes toward travel, however, may modify the strength of the relationship between urban form and children’s travel behavior.
The results of this study advance the discussion on relationships between urban form, transportation and health and inform policy and practice of the best targets for future planning interventions.