Improving active travel to school and its surveillance: an overlooked opportunity in health promotion and chronic disease prevention

Key takeaways:

  • Active travel to school (ATS) increases children’s levels of physical activity. The result is improved overall health in the bones, weight management, cardiovascular fitness, cognition, and mental well-being.
  • There is a lack of accessible surveillance data that focuses on ATS or the physical activity of children. The data that is available is maintained at the local level. There is no comprehensive ATS data that would enable use in policy change or programming requirements at the national level.
  • The latest data from the National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) dates back to 2017. While it contains useful information, such as only ten percent of students were walking or biking to school, and beyond a one-mile distance, only seven percent walk or bike to school, the survey is not conducted at consistent intervals. The last time the survey collected information related to ATS programming was in 2009.
  • The authors propose that the NHTS should be built using tools such as global positioning systems (GPS), maps, geographic information systems (GIS), and direct observation. These tools can provide a great deal of information about sidewalk conditions, the presence of bike racks, and other characteristics of walkable, bikeable, and rollable routes.
  • Using objectively measured data and on-the-ground perceptions together can guide neighborhood-level action.
  • ATS surveillance can contribute to policies and programs that support walkability, bikeability, and rollability in the built environment (e.g. sidewalk maintenance policies, Safe Routes to School programs, etc.).
  • Equity can be integrated into local surveillance methods, metrics, and analysis more adeptly due to their smaller, more community-based nature. Rather than approaching barriers to ATS from a state level, neighborhood-level surveillance enables the integration of community perspectives.


  • Practitioners can combine mapping technology (like GIS) and/or other travel data with community-engaged assessment activities (i.e. surveys, focus groups, community walk audits, etc.)  to inform what is needed to bike/walk safely.
  • Safe Routes to School programs can play a key role in collecting local ATS surveillance. Common Safe Routes to School evaluation tools such as student travel tallies and parent surveys, are used to collect important information on rates of biking, walking and rolling to/from school and feedback as to why parents may or may not choose active transportation. This data can inform actions and policies to increase active travel to/from school.

George, S.M., Sliwa, S.A., Cornett, K.A., Do, V., Bremer, A.A., Berrigan, D. “Improving active travel to school and its surveillance: an overlooked opportunity in health promotion and chronic disease prevention.” Translational Behavioral Medicine 12, (2022).

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