Walking to school among school-aged children is associated with higher levels of overall physical activity compared with children who travel to school by bus or car.6
In this secondary analysis of cross-sectional data from 365 elementary school children in Baltimore City, for those who resided on street blocks above the median in neighborhood incivilities, the odds of walking to school were increased by 353% compared with children residing on street blocks low in incivilities (OR: 3.53; 95% CI: 1.68 to 7.39, P
= .001), controlling for a variety of individual-level and neighborhood-level (ie, census tract level) factors. Although high levels of street block incivilities were associated with lower perceived safety among these children, perceived safety was not related to likelihood of walking to school after adjusting for other covariates in the model.
Results suggest that level of incivilities is not a barrier to active transportation to school in this sample, in contrast to our hypothesis. Previous research in this area has demonstrated mixed findings. At least 3 studies have shown that rates of active transportation to school are higher in low-income areas as compared with higher-income areas.31–33
Other research has shown higher levels of physical activity among youth who reside in neighborhoods with few incivilities and high levels of perceived safety. A study of a multiethnic sample of 1378 children and adolescents in Chicago examined resident perceptions of neighborhood safety and opportunities to play as well as objective measures of neighborhood social (eg, public intoxication, people selling drugs, gangs present) and physical disorder (eg, graffiti, abandoned cars, condoms, needles, empty beer bottles) in relation to caregiver report of youth physical activity levels.12
In multilevel analyses, perceived neighborhood safety was positively associated with physical activity and neighborhood social disorder was negatively associated with physical activity, controlling for individual and community level age, sex, race, socioeconomic status, and body mass index.In the current study, by contrast, children residing on street blocks high in incivilities were more likely to walk to school. One possible explanation is that street blocks high in incivilities are those of particularly concentrated disadvantage. Four of the six schools from which the sample was obtained were Title 1 public schools, indicative of disadvantage. Children residing in these areas are likely to walk to and from school out of necessity, as their households do not have the resources (ie, cars, time, adults at home immediately before and after school) to drive or otherwise transport their children. While previous research has found that lack of perceived neighborhood safety is a barrier to active transportation,12
perceived lack of safety was not associated with walking to school in this study. The finding that the children residing on street blocks high in incivilities were more likely to perceive their neighborhoods to be unsafe, but also more likely to walk to school provides support for the notion that children were walking to school out of necessity.
Another possible explanation is that neighborhoods with high levels of incivilities also demonstrate other characteristics that are positively associated with the likelihood of walking to school such as high levels of street-connectivity or the presence of sidewalks. As we did not include measures of aspects of the built environment in our analyses, we were unable to assess this possibility.
In addition, neighborhoods high in incivilities may also have high levels of residential density. If children live in closer proximity to each other, they may be more likely to walk to school as they have several other children to walk with. The majority of children in this study sample walked with either other children or with adults. Additional analyses looking at children who walked with others vs. all other modes of travel to school indicated that residing on a block above the median in incivilities was statistically significantly associated with a 2.28 factor increase in the odds of walking with others compared with other travel modalities (OR: 2.28; 95% CI: 1.31 to 3.98, P = .004). Children (or their parents or caregivers) may be more likely to walk with others if they live in an area with high levels of incivilities, due to safety concerns. Though we did not assess residential density, future directions include concurrently assessing the built and social environments and their relationship with walking to school.
There are limitations of this research that warrant discussion. First, the MORE project was not designed to primarily assess walking behavior, thus walking to school was assessed by only 1 question that has not been validated. While this approach was not ideal, the question used in the current study is similar to an item used in the National Household Transportation Survey inquiring about transportation to and from school, which has established validity.34
Our use of self-reported walking is similar to other studies in the extant literature that have described associations between self-reported walking to school and physical activity levels among children.35,36
Additionally, previous studies of self-reported daily travel surveys among elementary school-aged children have reported good test-retest reliability and criterion validity compared with parental report.37,38
Second, we did not have information on other potential confounders including household car ownership. Variables such as car ownership or bus availability may be an important factor in explaining why children residing on blocks high in incivilities may be more likely to walk to school, as individuals residing on blocks high in incivilities may be less likely to own a car, or less likely to have ready access to school buses or other types of public transportation. This limitation notwithstanding, the finding that a high proportion of children are walking to school despite the presence of numerous neighborhood incivilities or hazards is important for public safety efforts, regardless of the underlying causal pathway.
Third, the extent to which results might generalize to other locations that have lower levels of neighborhood incivilities and hazards is unknown. However, these results are likely generalizable to other urban environments with a similar sociodemographic composition and measures of neighborhood incivilities and hazards. Fourth, straight-line distance between home and school was used as we did not have data on the exact paths by which children traveled to and from school. An alternate approach would have been to use the shortest distance along streets. However, children may not take the shortest path along roads, they may take different paths according to whether they are walking with other children, whether there are ‘short-cuts’ through alleys or parks, or whether they prefer to walk along major roads. To avoid making the assumption that children always take the shortest path along streets, we decided to use the simpler measure of straight-line distance as opposed to ‘walking distance’ along roads. Future studies in this area would benefit from obtaining data on actual paths traveled to school.
Finally, the 2000 Census data were collected several years before NIfETy or MORE project data. Measurement error may therefore have been introduced as a consequence of changes in neighborhood sociodemographic characteristics over time. If this bias was introduced, we believed that it would have been nondifferential and thus underestimated the true impact of sociodemographic factors on the odds of walking to school.
Despite these limitations, this is still one of the first studies that used both objective and perceived measures of the environment to explore walking to school among urban-dwelling children Our results indicate that children residing in neighborhoods particularly high in disorder and decay are more likely to walk to school than children who live in neighborhoods with fewer incivilities. These unexpected findings suggest that children residing in areas of extremely concentrated disadvantage are more likely to walk to school, likely out of necessity, in spite of lower levels of perceived safety. The types of incivilities assessed in this study (eg, drug paraphernalia, people using drugs, evidence of vandalism or violence, damaged sidewalks, vacant houses and abandoned buildings) are indicators of unsafe environments for children to walk. Students, their parents or caregivers, teachers, and principals may not be aware of the hazards the children face, or may lack the resources to ensure safe walking routes to and from school. As a high proportion of children residing in disadvantaged neighborhoods are currently walking to school, efforts need to be directed at protecting children from continued exposure to these environmental hazards and risk of concomitant negative outcomes such as injury and victimization. Subsequently, policies and community interventions should focus on minimizing children's exposure to neighborhood hazards by ensuring safe routes to and from school.