In our Active Streets, Active People - Junior study we are investigating how young people get to and from their destinations, including school. Importantly, what do those travel choices mean for their levels of physical activity and overall health? To answers these important questions, we asked high school students from downtown Vancouver to wear a physical activity monitor (accelerometer) and carry a global positioning system (GPS) for a week. These objective data enabled us to assess the transportation mode (walk, bike, car, public transit), duration, distance and physical activity levels of each trip that was taking during the week.
We found that most students walked as their primary mode of travel to and from school. These walkers obtained about 20 minutes of healthful physical activity from school travel, nearly one third of their daily physical activity requirement!
However, we were surprised to see just how common public transit trips were among downtown Vancouver teens for getting to and from school. Usually in the North American context, kids who live more than about 1 km from school are driven in the family car or they take a school bus. This has important health implications. We found that teens taking public transit accumulated approximately the same amount of physical activity as teens who walked to school.
Traveling on public transit is what we call a ‘walk interrupted’: every transit trip begins and ends with a walk to and from a transit stop. With the help of our GPS and physical activity data, we found that teens who use public transit to get to school had a longer trip overall (in terms of time and distance), but they walked about the same amount as the teens who walked straight to school.
A well-connected public transit network gives teens the opportunity to travel independently to school and reap health benefits. To us this underscores the importance of planning our neighbourhoods to connect homes to schools. Our research also shows that teens often go to places like community centres before they go home after school, and they usually travel there by public transit.
An abundant access to public transit that connects schools to other community destinations makes it easier for young people to get to their after school activities.
In another recent study, we compared the school travel patterns of teens from downtown Vancouver to those of teens living in a suburban area of Surrey. Not only did more Vancouver teens walk to school compared with teens from Surrey (63% vs 53%), but they also tended to get more physical activity from their school trip. Interestingly, the teens who used a motorized vehicle (car or bus) for their school trip, showed physical activity levels twice as high in teens from Vancouver as compared with Surrey during the commute. This group of Vancouver teens also had about 10 more minutes of physical activity each day than teens in Surrey who were driven to school.
These higher activity levels appear to be the result of downtown teens using public transit as their form of motorized travel compared with teens in areas with less public transit infrastructure who were primarily driven to school. This is likely connected with living further from school in largely car-dependent neighbourhoods, whereas the downtown teens have access to multi-modal options in the transit-rich urban core.
It is essential we consider the way we design our neighbourhoods so that we make it possible and easy for people to be more active. By doing so we create an environment for people to be healthier, wealthier, and happier.
By failing to invest in public transit, we take away the tools for our young people to have healthful physical activity as part of their daily routines. We reduce access to vital community services that help young people grow into healthy, active, and engaged young adults. For these reasons, we whole-heartedly support the upcoming transit plebiscite and encourage you to vote “yes” with us.