U.S. School Travel, 2009
An Assessment of Trends
Noreen C. McDonald, PhD, Austin L. Brown, MRP, MPH, Lauren M. Marchetti, BA,
Margo S. Pedroso, BA
Background: The White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity has set a goal of increasing
ing of the current patterns of school travel.
Purpose: To document nationally representative estimates of the amount of school travel and the
modes used to access school in 2009 and compare these levels with 1969, 1995, and 2001.
Methods: The National Household Travel Survey collected data on the travel patterns of 150,147
households in 2008 and 2009. Analyses, conducted in 2010, documented the time, vehicle miles
traveled, and modes used by American students to reach school. A binary logit model assessed the
influence of trip, child, and household characteristics on the decision to walk to school.
year. During the morning peak period, school travel accounted for 5%–7% of vehicle miles traveled
in 2009 and 10%–14% of all private vehicles on the road.
Conclusions: There have been sharp increases in driving children to school since 1969 and corre-
trips generated by parents dropping children at school and teens driving themselves. The NHTS
survey provides a unique opportunity to monitor these trends in the future.
(Am J Prev Med 2011;41(2):146–151) © 2011 American Journal of Preventive Medicine
expenditure of $20 billion on busing by the public sector
during the 2006–2007 school year and untallied costs by
Childhood Obesity3recommended that “‘active trans-
port’ should be encouraged between homes, school, and
taking safe walking and biking trips to and from school.”
early 55 million American elementary and sec-
ondary students travel to and from school each
day.1Transporting these students required an
The 2005 federal transportation bill, SAFETEA-LU, cre-
ated a national Safe Routes to School program to make
walking safer and encourage students to walk and bike.
The original legislation and extensions have allocated
more than $800 million to the program.
and rising fuel prices also have focused attention on
school travel.4,5Understanding the scale and patterns of
school travel is critical to developing policy on these
issues and measuring progress toward goals. This article
provides a snapshot of school travel in 2009, investigates
trends in how children traveled to and from school be-
tween 1969 and 2009, and identifıes correlates of active
The U.S. Department of Transportation conducts the National
Household Travel Survey (NHTS) to document America’s travel
patterns. Conducted at 5- to 10-year intervals since 1969, the most
recent NHTS, from 2009, provides important detail on children’s
school travel. The survey collected information on all trips under-
taken on a randomly assigned survey day. In 1969 and 2009, there
were also special sections of the survey devoted to school travel.
From the Department of City and Regional Planning (McDonald), Na-
Research Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill,
North Carolina; and the Safe Routes to School National Partnership (Pe-
droso), Washington, DC
City and Regional Planning, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,
317 New East Building CB 3140, Chapel Hill NC 27599. E-mail:
Am J Prev Med 2011;41(2):146–151 © 2011 American Journal of Preventive Medicine • Published by Elsevier Inc.
This analysis used data from 1969, 1995, 2001, and 2009. The 1969
survey was based on a clustered sample design and results were
collected through in-person interviews. The 1995 to 2009 surveys
used a nonclustered, list-assisted random-digit-dial sample strati-
fıed by geographic area. The response rate for the 1969 survey was
not recorded. Weighted person-level response rates were 34.3% in
1995, 34.1% in 2001, and 25.1% in 2009.6,7
Measures of School Travel
The NHTS reported two measures of school trip mode choice:
mode (1995, 2001, 2009). The 1969 and 2009 surveys had special
sectionsthataskedOnmostschooldays,howdid[. . .]usuallygetto
students in 2009. The second measure of school travel was survey-
day travel mode, which is equivalent to asking the question How
did you get to school today? These travel-day data are available for
students aged 5–18 years. Trips were counted as school trips if
(1) the trip purpose was Go to school as a student (2009, 2001) or
School (1995); (2) the trip began on a weekday morning between
5:00AM and 10:59AM during the school year (September–May);
(3) the student spent at least 150 minutes at the destination; and
(4) the student did not begin the travel day away from home. The
trips to school with the exception that they were required to occur
between 1:00PM and 6:00PM.
mode of travel for students aged between 5 and 15 years. This
with valid responses to usual school travel mode, distance to
the survey was based on in-person interviews with 6000 house-
holds.8For the survey-day school travel analysis, the number of
7416 in 1995, increased to 11,998 in 2001, and to 18,657 in 2009.
All analyses were conducted in 2010 using Stata, version 11.1, and
version 2 of the NHTS data sets.9
Amount of School Travel in Vehicle Miles Traveled
Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and vehicle trips associated with
school travel were estimated using 2009 travel diary records with
information on trip distance, duration, and household members
accompanying the student. Trips were counted as private vehicle
school trips if they were to drop off or pick up a child at school or
for teens to drive themselves to or from school. The trips were
adjusted so that if a parent drove multiple children to school at the
same time only one vehicle trip was recorded.
School trip modal shares were estimated using NHTS-supplied
to project from the sample to nationally representative estimates.
The reported mode splits were standardized to the weighted 2009
NHTS distribution by school type (elementary [aged 5–11 years]);
middle [aged 12–14 years]; high [aged 15–18 years]); gender; and
race (non-Hispanicwhite, non-Hispanic
Correlates of Walking and Biking to School
A model of the probability of usually walking or biking to school
versus driving or taking the school bus for trips of less than 1 mile
assessed the relative influences of trip, individual, and household
students enter high school.10Because the sample was exogenously
stratifıed, binary logit models were estimated without the applica-
tion of survey weights.11
Model results are summarized by presenting ORs and the mar-
ginal effect of each factor on the probability of walking to school.
Because most explanatory factors are dichotomous, reported here
is the change in the probability of walking to school for a discrete
change in the explanatory variable. Reported effects are averaged
size for the model was 4508, which included respondents aged
their usual school travel mode.
Table 1 shows the unweighted sample statistics. No sum-
mary statistics were provided for the 1969 data.
Amount of School Travel
eled 4.7 billion person-hours and 68.9 billion person-
miles to get to and from school in 2009. For youth aged
5–18 years, school trips accounted for 22% of annual
person-trips, 22% of annual person-hours spent travel-
ing, and 12% of annual person-miles. The average dis-
tance to school in 2009 was 4.4 miles, with elementary
students having shorter average trip lengths (3.6 miles)
than high school students (5.5 miles). Students spent an
average of 17.3 minutes traveling to school.
Americans drove 30.0 billion miles and made 6.6 bil-
lion vehicle trips taking students to school and picking
them up from school in 2009. This accounted for 1% of
annual VMT in the country. During the morning peak
period (7:00AM–9:00AM) from September through May,
parents driving kids to school and teens driving them-
reliable source of data on aggregate school bus miles
traveled. It also does not include the impacts of what
parents do after dropping children at school. For exam-
home after dropping children at school is included, then
10%–14% of morning peak period vehicle trips and
5%–7% of VMT are associated with school travel.
McDonald et al / Am J Prev Med 2011;41(2):146–151
In 2009, 12.7% of ele-
school students usually
were driven (Table 2).
These proportions are
when 12.2% of elemen-
tary and middle school
students were driven and
47.7% walked or biked.
School bus usage stayed
constant between 1969
and 2009, with approxi-
mately 40% using school
buses. Walking is more
common on the trip
home from school than
the trip to school.12,13In
the afternoon, 16.0% of
walked or biked home,
39.0% were driven, and
41.9% took the school
Elementary and mid-
within 0.25 miles of their
schools are 14 times more likely to walk to school than
students living 1–2 miles from school (Table 3). Those
living between 0.5 and 1 mile from school had walk rates
and 1 mile. The share of
elementary and middle
school students living
within 1 mile of school
was 30.6% in 2009 and
those living 1–2 miles
from school was 19.6%.
For all K–12 stude-
nts, the travel-day data
showed a static pic-
ture between 1995 and
2009, with no signifıcant
changes in the preva-
lence of walking, driving,
or riding the school bus
during the time period
(Table 4). However, the
overall picture masked
differing trends between K–8 and high school students.
school bus use rose by a proportionate amount. Among
elementary and middle school students, the share of stu-
dents arriving to school by personal vehicle rose by 6 per-
Table 1. National Household Travel Survey summary statistics for school travel,
Survey-day travel mode
Usual travel mode
Mean age of child (years [SE])
9.7 (0.02) 11.2 (0.04)11.3 (0.03) 11.5 (0.03)
School level (age in years)
Elementary (5–11) 65.852.951.048.4
Middle (12–14) 34.223.2 23.924.6
High (15–18)0.0 23.925.1 26.9
Male 50.8 51.8 51.851.8
Non-Hispanic white75.2 80.5 80.5 76.2
Non-Hispanic black6.4 7.95.8 6.2
Hispanic/Latino 12.96.0 7.8 12.2
Other/missing 220.127.116.11 5.3
Two adults/parents91.086.0 88.891.1
Single adult/parent 9.013.1 11.18.7
Note: Values are percentages unless otherwise indicated. Summary statistics are not available for 1969.
Table 2. Usual mode of transportation to school, 1969 and 2009, %
(aged 5–14 years)
(aged 5–11 years)
(aged 12–14 years)
1969 2009 1969 200919692009
12.2 45.312.2 47.5 12.340.5
47.7 12.7 49.313.141.611.8
WalkN/A 11.7N/A12.1 N/A 10.7
BikeN/A 1.0N/A 1.0 N/A 1.1
38.3 39.437.3 37.942.342.8
1.7 18.104.22.168 3.84.9
N/A, not assessed
McDonald et al / Am J Prev Med 2011;41(2):146–151
centage points—compensated by smaller declines in walk-
school students living within 1 mile of the school declined
Analysis of the travel-day data also highlighted varia-
tion between the usual travel mode and how students
were higher and estimates of driving to school lower for
the usual travel mode. For example, 11.7% of elementary
and middle school students reported usually walking to
school, but on the travel day 9.8% walked to school.
Comparison of respondents reporting both modes
showed that 87% of usual walkers actually walked on the
travel day, but 97% of those usually taken in the car were
driven on the survey day.
hold factors on the probability of walking or biking to
school versus being driven or taking the school bus for
effect on levels of walking to school, with the probability
students living between 0.25 and 0.5 miles from school
compared with students living ?0.25 miles from school.
Living 0.5–1 mile from school is associated with a
37 percentage points decline in walking to school com-
pared with living within 0.25 miles of school. Being male
increased the probability of usually walking to school by
on walking to school. For those aged 5–9 years, there are
no signifıcant differences in prevalence of walking to
school. But for those aged 10–14 years, the probability of
pared with those aged 5–9 years.
age points higher than students from households with at
4 percentage points higher than students where all adults
were working, in school, or looking for work. Living in
urban clusters, which are Census-defıned units of higher
density, was associated with a 6 percentage points in-
crease in the probability of walking to school compared
parental concerns about traffıc and speed was a decrease
of 6 percentage points.
The 2009 NHTS data confırmed the trends observed in
previous analyses of school travel.14,15There have been
sharp increases in driving children to school since 1969
and corresponding decreases in walking to school. Dis-
walking to school because the relative travel time advan-
tage of motorized transport becomes large for trips more
than 0.5 miles.16–21For the fırst time, this study quanti-
fıed the contribution of school travel to vehicular travel.
Table 3. Percentage of students who usually walk or
bike to school, by distance, 2009
Grades K–8 ElementaryMiddle
Walk BikeWalkBike Walk Bike
?0.2555.3 0.953.10.9 65.5 1.0
0.25–0.530.42.2 25.52.0 49.9 3.1
0.5–115.13.4 13.9 3.118.5 4.1
1–24.0 1.6 2.6 1.47.2 1.9
?2 1.6 0.1 1.30 2.0 0.2
Note: Respondents gave a free response to the question of distance
to school. If they responded with a boundary value (e.g., 0.5 miles,
they were asked to which grouping it was closer [e.g., 0.25–0.5
miles or 0.5–1 miles]).
Table 4. Standardized mode of transportation shares for travel day school travel, 1995–2009, %
Grades K–8 Grades 9–12 Grades K–12
19952001 20091995 20012009 1995 20012009
Auto44.9 46.851.3 69.0 67.762.1 51.7 52.754.3
Walk12.4 13.7 9.8 6.7 7.96.810.8 12.1 9.0
Bike1.31.00.9 0.5 0.30.7 1.10.8 0.8
School bus 39.137.1 36.3 19.1 20.825.933.5 32.533.4
Other 2.31.4 1.8 4.63.3 4.52.9 1.9 2.5
Total 100100 100100 100 100100 100100
McDonald et al / Am J Prev Med 2011;41(2):146–151
That contribution is relatively modest overall with pri-
vate vehicle school travel accounting for 1% of annual
VMT in 2009. But during the morning peak period from
September to May, school trips accounted for 10%–14%
of all private vehicles on the road and 5%–7% of VMT.
This fıgure is comparable to data from the United King-
dom where the Department for Transport estimated that
10%–15% of auto trips during the morning rush hour
were to drop children at school.22
Analysis of modal shifts between 1995 and 2009 found
varying patterns between high school and younger stu-
dents. The proportion of high school students driving or
being driven to school declined. Understanding the rea-
Drivers Licensing programs in many states,23rising gas
prices, and the economic downturn, which has likely
and pay for operations and maintenance.
Patterns among elementary and middle school stu-
dents showed no changes in behavior among those
living within easy walking or biking distance of school
(?1 mile) but revealed a decrease in the proportion of
students living close to school. The shift in the spatial
distribution of students likely explains why overall
auto use increased among all elementary and middle
school students and walking declined slightly. These
results also highlighted the importance of school loca-
tion and school assignment policies on school trip
The White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity
set a goal of increasing levels of walking and biking to
school by 50% by 2015. As the only nationally represen-
tative data on youth travel, the National Household
Travel Survey provides a means of monitoring trends in
the Task Force goal is the federal Safe Routes to School
program25has benefıted more than 10,000 U.S. elemen-
tary and middle schools or approximately 10% of all
elementary and middle schools. Many of these commu-
nities have begun collecting local data on school travel.
The NHTS provides national- and state-level bench-
Table 5. OR and marginal effects on the probability of
usually walking or biking to school for K–8 students for
trips ?1 mile
Trip distance (miles)
Aged 10?14 years1.861
Non-Hispanic black 0.6760.012
Other race (nonwhite)0.9760.874
Zero vehicles2.4510.006 0.16
?1 vehicle per driver0.8810.750
1 vehicle per driverref
?1 vehicle per driver 0.716 0.386
Household income ($)
60,000?100,000 1.187 0.1980.03
?100,000 1.558 0.0020.08
Household adult is
High school0.758 0.019
Some college0.859 0.105
College graduate ref
Single-parent household1.037 0.791 0.01
Foreign-born adult in
1.317 0.005 0.05
Located in urban cluster1.396
distance to school
Concerned about crime1.040 0.1440.01
Table 5. (continued)
McDonald et al / Am J Prev Med 2011;41(2):146–151
marks that schools and communities can use to better
interpret local trends.
School trips accounted for approximately one quarter of
the trips and time American children spent traveling.
vehicles and school buses—to get to and from school in
2009. In fact, school travel accounted for nearly 1% of
annual private vehicle VMT in the U.S. and 10%–14% of
all autos on the road during the morning peak period.
tary and middle school students usually walked or biked
to school and 16% did so on the way home from school.
These statistics reflect the speed advantage and conve-
nience of driving for many trips greater than1⁄2 mile as
well as parental concerns about traffıc and stranger dan-
ger. Policymakers have set a goal of increasing the pro-
portion of students walking to school by 50% by 2015.
The NHTS survey can be useful in monitoring progress
for local communities.
This research was supported by the National Center for Safe
Routes to School, the Highway Safety Research Center, and the
Department of City & Regional Planning at the University of
North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We would like to thank mem-
bers of the FHWA NHTS staff, Nancy McGuckin, and Yuki
Nakamoto for their assistance with the data.
No fınancial disclosures were reported by the authors of this
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