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Curtin University


Children, Travel, Health and the Built Environment – Australian Research Council Discovery Grant (DP1094495)

Research Team: at Curtin – Prof Carey Curtis (leader); Chris Armit, Courtney Babb, Oscar Thomson; in collaboration with: Assoc. Prof Matthew Burke at Griffith University; Dr. Mitch Duncan ; Prof. Carolyn Whitzman at University of Melbourne; Dr. Paul Tranter at University of New South Wales (ADFA at Canberra).

This project represents the first national study in Australia of children's behaviours in relation to their built and social environments. The significance of this research is in the provision of a national picture of children’s mobility and health. The findings, which support previous research in North America and Europe, raise significant concerns in relation to environmental sustainability and health.

The research examines the independent mobility and active travel of a sample of Australian children aged 10-13 in a variety of settings (inner suburb, middle/outer suburb, regional town). Three hundred seventy-five children aged 10-13 were recruited to participate, drawn from nine primary schools in Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Rockhampton selected from sites in inner, middle and outer suburbs and a regional town. Survey instruments collected data for children on travel behaviour, attitudes (written and visual survey) and health metrics. Parents’ attitudes were also surveyed.

To date we have found that while the built environment (specifically distance from school and its relationship with density) was associated with more active travel, parental attitudes play a decisive role. Children with a high share of active travel are more likely to have parents with a positive attitude to children’s independent mobility. Conversely, parents who placed most restriction on their children’s independent mobility were most likely to drive them, and active modes were least likely to feature in their children’s travel patterns.

In all residential environments children’s dominant mode of travel is by car, followed by walking. New outer suburban estates designed with improved pedestrian infrastructure to facilitate walking have not succeeded in the delivery of higher rates of children’s active travel. Large school catchment sizes put many children beyond reasonable walking distance. Parent’s busy schedules and longer distances to work are also associated with a higher degree of chauffeuring of children.

An in-depth study of Perth children found that active travel was children’s preferred mode, but this was not reflected in the majority of children’s actual travel to school.

In terms of children’s social connectedness to their spatial, social and civic place, the findings illuminate differences among children by residential environment. A larger proportion of middle and outer suburban children report never playing outside compared to inner urban and regional based children, but it is also evident that a slightly larger proportion of children in the two former locations play outside 5 or more days per week compared to inner urban children.

The project identified the significant economic and environmental costs of the current level of adult accompaniment and supervision of children. Not only are there significant time demands on parents to transport children to school, sport and other locations, but the likely health impacts of this situation on children’s levels of physical activity are a cause for concern. The life worlds and lived experiences of many children are curtailed in problematic ways, with key environmental features that limit or promote independent mobility and safe active travel identified. Importantly, the project also identifies possible strategies for addressing these issues, including strategies that involve children themselves in the planning of their own neighbourhoods.


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