Associations Between Environmental Attributes and Children’s Active Travel to School
Active travel (e.g., walking, cycling, or other non-motorised modes to destinations) is a convenient and regular form of promoting physical activity and health, and supports environmental sustainability through reducing traffic congestion and emissions. Active school travel (AST) can substantially reduce motorised vehicle use and enhance physical activity for children on a daily basis. Despite these benefits, less than half of New Zealand (NZ) children aged 5-14 years actively travel to school. There is growing consensus that multiple factors (i.e., policy, physical/built and social/cultural environments, schools, households, individuals) influence children’s AST. These factors are commonly conceptualised using a socio-ecological model. The Behavioural Model of School Transportation (BMST) is a comprehensive conceptual model for children’s school travel behaviour which incorporates the socio-ecological model. Drawn from the BMST and existing literature, the current research developed a study-specific conceptual model, entitled the Children’s School Travel Behaviour Model (C-STBM). Based on the C-STBM, this research aims to assess how children’s AST is associated with multiple environmental attributes through a series of a systematic literature review (Chapter 2) and empirical studies (Chapters 4 and 5). A systematic meta-analysis review, conducted on a separate, but related study, was included as a supplementary material (Appendix A).
Chapter 2 systematically identified and examined existing evidence of subjectively measured physical environment attributes as well as social and sociodemographic characteristics associated with children’s AST. In Chapters 4 and 5, data were drawn from Neighbourhoods for Active Kids (NfAK), a cross-sectional study of 1102 children aged 8-13 years (school years 5-8) and their parents from nine intermediate (middle/junior high) and 10 primary (elementary) schools in Auckland, NZ. An online participatory mapping (softGIS) survey with children, a computer-assisted telephone interviewing survey with parents, and geographic information systems (GIS) for physical environment attributes were utilised to collect and describe data. Chapter 4 examined differences in geographical space and objective physical environment attributes which were derived from child-drawn routes using softGIS and GIS-modelled shortest routes. Chapter 5 employed a structural equation modelling technique to test the C-STBM and assess direct and indirect relationships between children’s AST and physical and social environments, and household and child factors.
Findings from Chapter 2 showed that children’s AST was associated with multiple environmental attributes including distance to school, walkability, safety, social interactions, and sociodemographic characteristics which informed the theorised structural model of the C-STBM. In Chapter 4, child-drawn routes using softGIS were significantly different from GIS-modelled shortest routes, informing the decision to use child-drawn routes rather than estimated routes for modelling in Chapter 5. Chapter 5 proved that the C-STBM sufficiently explained the complex mechanism of children’s AST. Distance to school and safety were key to children’s AST. Strategies to facilitate school zoning, advocate for local schools, and create AST-supportive neighbourhood built and social environments are recommended to reduce distance to school and improve safety. A community-centred, multilevel (i.e., policy, built and social environments, school, household, child) approach is important for AST programmes and interventions to actively engage and empower communities to drive changes to their environments. Use of online participatory mapping was employed to collect children’s views and use of their environments. This approach recognised and respected the importance of children’s participation as active citizens in efforts to understand and promote AST. This research provided a theory-based, evidence-supported conceptual model for children’s AST (i.e., C-STBM) which can be used for future AST programmes and interventions, and contribute to informing and measuring changes in children’s AST.