To Get More Kids Walking and Biking, Let’s Inspire, not Shame Communities into Action
January is a time of year when we are collectively inundated with messages about weight loss, and while we embrace the concepts of health and fresh starts, this is also an opportunity to reflect on how that narrative affects youth active travel and Safe Routes to School. As the leading national organization focused on supporting kids, caregivers, and communities to walk and wheel to school and throughout their communities, we care about kids’ ability to walk and wheel to school because it is joyful, it is a way of combatting climate fatalism, it keeps kids safe from traffic injuries and fatalities, it is linked to academic achievement, and it is a step toward righting historical and contemporary inequities in transportation policy and funding.
As an organization with deep public health roots, we recognize that youth active travel is tied to two health outcomes: traffic violence and physical activity. We care about keeping kids and people of all ages safe from traffic injuries and fatalities, and we love that walking and wheeling get kids and community members active. And, we recognize that leading with messages about safety and healthy weight are not what inspire everyday people to walk and wheel. Telling a parent how dangerous traffic speeds are doesn’t particularly inspire them to walk their child to school, nor does talking about a child’s body shape or size support them to feel confident in the way they move throughout the world. Accordingly, we want to equip you with research and talking points to help you focus on other facets of Safe Routes to School and youth active travel rather than buy into the New Year weight loss tropes.
Last fall, Streetsblog published an article titled Anti-Fat Bias Harms the Movement for Safe Streets — Particularly for Kids: Why are we only focusing on calorie burning when advocating for active transport to school? Because of bad research. The article critiques the use of Body Mass Index (BMI) as a health metric, and its pervasive use in academic research to measure the impacts of youth active travel. As Kea Wilson justly points out, the focus on BMI and obesity feeds into a larger societal and cultural phenomenon of fat shaming. Plus, not to mention the very problematic (and racist) origin of the BMI measurement itself.
While there is a proliferation of this BMI-based research, we keep tabs on a wide-range of research to show the implications of youth active travel on individual health, the environment, community safety, academic performance, and racial and social justice. In Fall 2022, we conducted a survey of Safe Routes School practitioners and advocates to understand how they use research to make a case for their programs and policies that encourage more youth to walk and bike. We want to share three key messages and related research that resonate with Safe Routes to School advocates. These may also help move your communities to embrace youth active travel.
#1: Biking and walking to and from school can be an easy and enjoyable way for kids to stay active and build confidence.
Independent of weight, there is plentiful research that points to regular physical activity as crucial to youth’s social and physical development. Unfortunately, youth physical activity rates have been on the decline for nearly two decades indicating a troublesome state of health for our kids. These rates get worse when youth lack access to safe, inviting outdoor spaces. Safe Routes to School programs can create opportunities for kids to lead active, healthy lives by addressing these environmental disparities and through programs that reinforce to kids (and adults) how fun biking and walking can be.
#2: Safe Routes to School programs address traffic dangers and improve safety for kids.
For advocates, parents, and schools, fat is not a motivating health issue. It is the fear of a child being injured (or worse) due to unsafe roads. One in two parents will not allow their child to walk to school because of vehicle traffic and concerns about traffic safety, even when they live within walking distance of the school.,  Safe Routes to School coordinators are well aware of these perceptions, working to normalize active travel through activities like walking school buses, bicycle trains, and walking/biking clubs. They conduct walk audits with families, develop school travel plans, and advance safety improvement projects. It is through this holistic approach that Safe Routes to School programs have been shown to effectively reduce traffic-related injuries.
#3: Walking and biking can be a tool to support youth mental health and improve community safety.
Safe Routes to School practitioners are tuned into the ever-growing concerns of youth emotional and mental health. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our organization published a report that included the mental and emotional health impacts, as well as a guide for Safe Routes to School practitioners on how to integrate trauma-informed principles into their programs. Entangled with these lasting impacts is the rise of other social concerns such as youth bullying and community violence that provoke anxiety, depression, and poor mental health among young people. While Safe Routes to School is certainly not a panacea, it is another “tool in the toolbox” for improving the environmental conditions that address safety, increase opportunities for healthy activity that reduce anxiety and depression, and increase self-efficacy and independence.
Evoking obesity, BMI, or calorie-burning in messages to promote youth active travel is not only harmful, but it is also rarely compelling to shift engrained attitudes and reverse decades of poor policy decisions that make walking and biking impossible in certain communities. Our most inspiring messages to promote biking and walking are not ones that alienate, antagonize, or shame people into doing it. Rather, our most effective appeals inspire communities and make walking, biking, and rolling enticing and relevant to everyone, regardless of body size, shape, or ability.
 “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, Second Edition.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Accessed September 21, 2023. https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/Physical_Activity_Guidelines_2nd_edition.pdf
 “The 2022 United States Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth.” Physical Activity Alliance. Access September 21, 2023. https://paamovewithus.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/2022-US-Report-Card-on-Physical-Activity-for-Children-and-Youth.pdf
 The National Center for Safe Routes to School. (2010, January). Safe Routes to School Travel Data: A Look at Baseline Results from Parent Surveys and Student Travel Tallies. http://www.saferoutesinfo.org/sites/default/files/SRTS_baseline_data_report.pdf
 Omura, J.D., Hyde, E.T., Watson, K.B., Sliwa, S.A., Fulton, J.E. and Carlson, S.A., 2019. Prevalence of children walking to school and related barriers—United States, 2017. Preventive medicine, 118, pp.191-195.
 “Physical Activity: Interventions to Increase Active Travel to School.” Community Prevention Services Task Force. Accessed September 21, 2023. https://www.thecommunityguide.org/findings/physical-activity-interventions-increase-active-travel-school.html