Youth Travel to School: Community Design Relationships with Mode Choice, Vehicle Emissions, and Healthy Body Weight
Youth Travel to School is a study commissioned by EPA that used data on a large sample of youth, ages 5 through 18 years, to examine if and how a variety of factors influence school travel. Household travel, land use, and air emissions data from Atlanta, Georgia, provided an opportunity to assess the impacts of urban form and school location on the journey to school. The study had three primary aims:
- Investigate factors that influence a student's travel mode choice for school trips.
- Examine the implications of those travel mode choices on vehicle emissions.
- Investigate the influence of home, school, and route urban form variables on body mass index (BMI) for a subset of youth, ages 16 to 18.
The study examined how neighborhood design around the home, along the route to school, and surrounding the school site shape travel choices. Data on parental travel patterns, their preferences for walkable or auto-oriented environments, and their perception of safety for walking and biking within their community provided an important set of control variables.
Summary of Findings
Short distances are crucial to encouraging walking to school. The probability of walking to school drops off quickly and dramatically as distance to school increases, going from about 25 percent of all school trips at the shortest distances (in this study, the shortest trip distance was under one-tenth of a mile) to less than 5 percent of school trips over 1 mile.
Neighborhood design is more important for short school trips and for younger children. For shorter distance school trips (0-1.5 miles), neighborhood design factors are significant predictors, and with higher levels of significance, than for longer trips. Because short trips are those most likely to be walking trips to begin with, it makes sense that urban form could make more of a difference in the choice of whether or not to walk.
Mode choice changes as students age. Overall, the probability of walking increases between the ages of 5 and 8, then holds relatively constant until age 12. It increases again between ages 12 and 16, then finally dips once students reach age 16.
Neighborhood design influences emissions. Of the neighborhood design characteristics, more sidewalks, higher residential densities, and more interconnected streets are consistently related with more walking trips to school and fewer emissions (including carbon dioxide). The study finds that changes in the physical infrastructure and surrounding built environment can have a clear transportation and emissions (environmental) benefit.
School quality influences school travel. When parents perceive the neighborhood school to be higher quality, their children are more likely to walk. This is particularly true for short school trips and for younger children (the most likely to be attending schools in their neighborhood).
Urban form and obesity.The data sample available for the BMI investigation was small and may not be representative of the larger target population. Although the relationship was significant, the findings in this study suggest that a larger sample is necessary to more thoroughly evaluate the impact of urban form on childhood obesity.
EPA would like to thank the following panel of experts who reviewed and provided valuable comments on the methodology for this study: Tracy E. McMillan, University of Texas at Austin; Alex Strashny, U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; Gabe Rousseau, U.S. DOT, Federal Highway Administration; Jeff Vincent, Center for Cities & Schools; Chad Bailey, U.S. EPA, Office of Air and Radiation.