Too far to walk?

by research adviser Tiffany Lam

Here is a question that recently came through our Safe Routes to School listserv: How far is “too far” to walk? If we want to get more children and teenagers to walk to school, what is the optimal distance between home and school so that walking seems like an attractive and feasible choice? Most Safe Routes to School practitioners agree that a half mile is as far as most kindergarteners will walk happily, a mile is a reasonable length for older elementary school kids, and that 1.5 miles is an acceptable distance for high schoolers. While these are generally accepted guidelines, there are nuances that make this answer more complex than just the number of miles or kilometers to walk, or the number of minutes it would take to walk a certain distance.

One reason for the complex answer is that “walkable” means different things to different people. What we mean by “walkable” is what a reasonable number of people of a given age will walk to get to a given activity or destination. Whether a distance is “walkable” or not depends on, among other factors, how taxing it will be to walk, what one’s options are, how normal walking is as a behavior in a particular community, how enjoyable the walk is, and the destination. Safe Routes to School practitioners can influence many aspects of walkability to increase the number of people walking, including perceptions of how walkable a route is and individual attitudes toward walking.

Here’s what research tells us about perceived acceptable walking distances to school. One study in Belgium found that the walkable distance to school varied based on age: For children aged 11 or 12, 1.5 kilometers (~.9 miles) was a walkable distance. For teenagers around 17 or 18 years old, the walkable distance was two kilometers. Another study in the United Kingdom similarly found that walkable distances varies across age groups and increases with age. For ten year olds, roughly 1.4 kilometers (~.9 miles) is a walkable distance. For 11-year olds that distance increases to about 1.6 kilometers (~1 mile). For 14-year olds, it is about 3 kilometers (~1.9 miles). Meanwhile, a study in Ireland found that 2.4 kilometers (~1.5 miles) was considered an appropriate walking distance to school for teenagers between 15 and 17 years old.

But quantifying distance is not enough to tell us how far is too far for children to walk to school. Sometimes places may seem far even though they are not actually that far away. We all have probably walked down, or at least can picture walking down, a street where there isn’t much going on besides a lot of fast-moving car traffic. A five-minute walk can feel like a five-hour walk if there’s nothing interesting to look at, if no one else is walking, and if the noise and fumes from passing cars just makes it unpleasant.

Individual attitudes towards walking, parents’ attitudes towards walking, parents’ perceptions of safety, socioeconomic background, and aspects of the built environment contribute to our perceptions of how far is too far. Studies show that parental perceptions of safety impact whether children walk or cycle to school. Parents of smaller children tend to worry more about road traffic dangers, like traffic volume and dangerous intersections, while parents of adolescents tend to worry more about crime and distance to school.  

Our attitudes towards walking and how normal walking seems also influence what we perceive as too far to walk. Research suggests that what is a walkable distance to school can be in the eyes of the beholder. A study in Austin found that even if children lived in the same or similar locations, children who walked to school were more likely to report that school was close enough to walk to, while children who were driven to school were more likely to think school was too far to walk to. To a large extent, it depends on whether children and their families already walk often, consider walking an acceptable everyday mode of transportation, and enjoy walking.

While distance to school certainly plays a role in students’ ability to walk there, these research studies suggest that we have an opportunity to support more kids to walk to school by adding a supplementary question to “how far is too far to walk?”. We should also be asking, How can we make walking to school seem like a doable, enjoyable, safe, and everyday thing to do?  By focusing more on educational and encouragement efforts, we can make walking to school seem like an attractive, if not the most attractive, option.