Do children let bad weather stop them from walking to school? One of the reasons some parents give for driving their kids to school is the climate — that rainstorms and winter snow, cold and ice are a dangerous obstacle for children. At the recent meeting of the International Association for Travel Behaviour Research, I went to see a paper that addressed this problem head-on. Researchers from Ryerson and the University of Toronto looked at whether the number of children walking to school in Toronto dropped during the winter, or during weeks when the weather was bad.
The study used data from the Transportation Tomorrow Survey, picking out children of 11-12 who lived within walking distance of their school, generously defined as 3.2 km. That resulted in about 950 students. (They were originally going to include cycling, but only 17 students of that age cycled, so the sample was too small to work with). They then compared the percentage who walked in the fall to the percentage who walked in the winter.
The results showed that there was no difference at all in the percentage of kids who walked to school during the fall and the winter. In other words, winter weather had no effect on walking to school. As the presenter noted, “Children think that snow is fun. It’s not a problem for them, it’s a problem for the parents.” Turns out weather is more of an excuse than a reason for driving kids to school.
They also looked at whether the number of students walking to school was affected by rain during the fall, and they found no effect there either.
It’s important to establish this fact, because it means that investing in walking infrastructure and programs that will help get students walking to school is a worthwhile investment that will create a consistent improvement.
The study also found that, once they were over 1.6 km from their school, the number of kids walking to school dropped significantly. While hardly surprising, it’s important information to consider when we talk about school location and school closings. One of the reasons for the decline in the number of children walking to school is “school sprawl” — ever-bigger schools wider distances apart. While it may be more expensive for school boards, as a society we might save money elsewhere (e.g. improved health, reduced congestion) with a larger number of smaller schools.
Also interesting was that, even controlling for distance from school, children in the suburbs were less likely to walk to school than children in the old city of Toronto (despite the fact that in suburban areas sidewalks get ploughed in the winter, whereas in the old city of Toronto snow clearing is more erratic because property owners are responsible). Material for another study, certainly.