Active transport options marred

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Concerns about traffic and personal safety are having a negative influence on active transport to school among rural Otago adolescents.

This is one of the preliminary findings of rural research by the Built Environment and Active Transport to School (Beats) research team.

The finding points to a need for a new approach to breaking down barriers to active transport, such as walking and cycling.

The percentage of New Zealand adolescents who travel to school by car has increased from 31% to 59% in the past 25 years.

Led by Associate Prof Sandra Mandic since 2013, the multi-disciplinary Beats team has onducted research in all 12 Dunedin secondary schools and 11 of 15 rural Otago secondary schools.

Prof Mandic, of the School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences, said rural communities faced very different issues from their urban counterparts, such as increased distances to most destinations, including schools.

“Our preliminary findings from rural Otago schools suggests that we need different interventions and approaches to address context-specific barriers to encourage active transport to school in both urbanised and rural areas of New Zealand,” she said.

Beats Study team member and lecturer in the University of Otago Department of Geography, Dr Christina Ergler, has looked closely at the concept of “social capital” and its impact on the decisions of rural parents and adolescents around active transport.

In the context of the Beats Study, social capital is summarised as social trust and support from peers, family and society as a whole, and also participation in networks with shared norms.

“In this way, social capital can influence active transport and independent mobility positively and negatively,” Dr Ergler said.

Through focus group interviews with rural young people and interviews with 20 parents, Dr Ergler gained a sense of the reasons why the decision not to use active transport is often made.

“Put simply, the majority of rural parents and adolescents say they live too far away from school to use active transport.

“The barriers to independent mobility – distance, traffic issues, and car culture – were viewed as too great for actual behaviour change.

“And concerns for adolescents’ personal and traffic safety also had a negative influence,” Dr Ergler said.

The parents interviewed often compared their own freedom to explore and ride bicycles as youngsters to that of young people today, but were still reluctant to expose their children to busy rural roads.

“In other words, family support plays a major role for young people’s mobility and active transport, and depends on how much parents value active transport as well as their parenting style,” Dr Ergler said.

Parental perceptions and practices were also influenced by wider social networks and the dominant transport norms in rural areas.

This meant that social capital should be included in health policies targeting physical inactivity, she said.