Children under 17 are walking significantly less than they used to, new research from University College London has revealed, primarily because they are using cars for more journeys. And specifically, the work by Professor Roger Mackett, from the Centre for Transport Studies at UCL has demonstrated, because more and more children are being driven to and from school.
This is a problem, Mackett told a recent seminar on transport, health and well-being hosted by the DfT, because reduced physical activity contributes to various long-term health conditions such as obesity; being driven everywhere reduces a child’s ability to interact with his or her local environment and learn decision-making skills and develop social networks; and the levels of physical activity exhibited by children can even influence examination performance.
Significantly, also, Mackett’s research indicates that children who walk to school burn significantly more energy when they get there than those who do not. When it comes to PE/games, for example, children who walk to school burn 3.5 calories per minute, compared with only 2.4 calories per minute for children who are driven to school, the UCL research suggests.
One main reason for this increase in car use by children is that the distance they need to travel to get to and from school has increased significantly in the past three decades or so, as parents have been given more choice in which school their children attend. For example, back in 1985/86, a typical 11-16 year old lived about 3.75km away from his/her school; by 2012 this figure had increased to almost 5.5km.
Even more dramatically, the percentage of children aged 5-10 allowed to travel to school unaccompanied by an adult (and therefore presumably not using a car!) has plummeted from over 20% in 1985/86 to less than 5% in 2010.
Mackett therefore recommends that there is a need to increase the emphasis on close of school to home in the school selection process; that more should be done to make the local environment safer for walking, cycling and playing by children; and that there is a need to increase the public’s awareness of the long-term health implications of inactivity in childhood. He also pointed out that many parents are excessively worried about the ‘stranger danger’ threat to their children’s safety, noting that of the 756 child abductions or attempted child abductions in 2009/10, only 68 were by strangers and, of these, only 12 had “a clear sexual motive”.