As active commuting levels continue to decline among primary schoolchildren, evidence about which built environmental characteristics influence walking or cycling to school remains inconclusive and is strongly context-dependent. This study aimed to identify the objective built environmental drivers of, and barriers to, active commuting to school for a multi-ethnic sample of 1,889 healthy primary schoolchildren (aged 5-11) in London, UK.
Using cross-sectional multilevel ordered logistic regression modelling, supported by the spatial exploration of built environmental characteristics through cartography, the objective built environment was shown to be strongly implicated in children's commuting behaviour. In line with earlier research, proximity to school emerged as the prime variable associated with the choice for active commuting. However, other elements of the urban form were also significantly associated with children's use of active or passive modes of transport. High levels of accidents, crime and air pollution along the route to school were independently correlated with a lower likelihood of children walking or cycling to school. Higher average and minimum walkability and higher average densities of convenience stores along the way were independently linked to higher odds of active commuting.
The significance of the relations for crime, air pollution and walkability disappeared in the fully-adjusted model including all built environmental variables. In contrast, relationships with proximity, traffic danger and the food environment were maintained in this comprehensive model. Black children, pupils with obesity, younger participants and those from high socioeconomic families were less likely to actively commute to school.
There is thus a particular need to ensure that roads with high volumes of actively commuting children are kept safe and clean, and children's exposure to unhealthy food options along the way is limited. Moreover, as short commuting distances are strongly correlated with walking or cycling, providing high-quality education near residential areas might incite active transport to school.
Our research shows how objectively measurable characteristics of the London built environment can be used to predict commuting behaviour for a representative sample of primary schoolchildren participating in the SLIC study. Proximity to school is the key characteristic associated with active commuting to school. However, personal and road safety and the provision of a healthy environment in terms of food options and air pollution along the route to school also require the attention of urban planners and policymakers. Specific attention should be given to children from minority backgrounds and affluent families.