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Principal Investigators: Faulkner, Guy E. J. and Buliung, Ron (University of Toronto)
Co-Investigators: Adlaf, Edward M. (University of Toronto); Fusco, Caroline (University of Toronto); Howard, Donna (Toronto Public Health); Kennedy, Jacky (Green Communities Canada); Salmon, Art (Ontario Ministry of Health Promotion).
This project is funded by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada (HSFC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).
1. The research question
Physical inactivity is recognized as an important factor in the increasing number of overweight or obese children. For youth, as time spent on physical activity in school declines, active commuting to school (e.g., walking, cycling) may be an important and consistent source of physical activity. Given that physical activity declines through adolescence, and that lifelong physical activity patterns are established in childhood, encouraging any amount of active commuting at a young age could be beneficial in the long-term. However, in Canada, over half of children aged 5-17 rely solely on inactive modes of transportation (e.g., car or bus) to and from school. There has been no Canadian research examining how to increase active school transport and specifically the role of the built environment (e.g., organization of streets) in shaping this behaviour. Our proposed research will address this knowledge gap.
2. The objectives
Our goal is to answer the following questions:
1) How do children and parents view the trip to school? What helps or limits childhood active transport to school?
2) How do features of the built environment influence the decision to drive or walk to school?
3) Are children who walk or bike to school more physically active overall, and do they have healthier body weights than children who do not?
4) What can we change so that parents and their children would choose to walk or bike to school?
Our research will provide valuable information for policy makers, practitioners, and researchers by a) advocating for policies that will make active transport a regular activity; b) helping schools and children think of ways to be active before and after school; and c) helping us understand how the built environment may encourage or constrain people from being physically active.
There has been very little research of this kind in Canada. In answering our questions, we will also develop skills useful to transportation and physical activity researchers. These researchers are needed on any project team that studies how the built environment influences physical activity and obesity.
3. The approach
We will answer our questions in a series of three related studies. In the first study, we will ask parents and their children living in the greater Toronto area what influences their decision on how to travel to and from school. This information will help design a questionnaire that will be given to a larger number of children and parents in the second study.
In the second study, we will assess other factors and in particular, how the built environment influences school travel decisions. We hope to identify features in the built environment that could be changed through planning and policy to increase the number of children who actively commute to school. We will also weigh children and assess their physical activity level to identify if those who walk or cycle to school are more physically active and have a healthier body weight than those who travel by car or public transport.
In the last study, we will expand the scope of the project and collect data from across the province. We will look at how children in Ontario travel to and from school and factors that influence their mode of travel, for example, if boys are more likely to walk to school. We will also identify places that have high and low levels of active transport and why.
4. The unique factors
Our project is unique in the Canadian context and is critical in understanding how the built environment helps or hinders active school transport. Existing research has not yet identified factors that determine how children travel to school. Additionally, no Canadian study has examined this research question. Policy on this issue requires local evidence. Our work will provide key evidence to support the development of better policies and programs to positively affect school travel behaviour and children's health.
Our project is also novel in developing a more complete conceptual model for understanding the relationship between school transport decisions, policies, and the built environment. This model will help identify factors that need to be changed to encourage active transport in Canadian youth and children.
5. How the project is relevant to the objectives of the initiative
Our project directly addresses how the built environment contributes to physical activity and obesity, in the context of school transport. Understanding active school transport remains a knowledge gap. We will address this gap by studying the extent to which school transport impacts physical activity and ultimately, obesity in youth and children.
Our researchers are well positioned to work in tandem with end users to affect policy changes. We have experts in transportation planning, activity-travel behaviour, and geographic information system - Buliung; physical activity - Faulkner; epidemiology - Adlaf; geography of physical activity - Fusco; and policy makers at the provincial level - Salmon; local - Howard; and community-based non-governmental organization - Kennedy.