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Does Childhood Mode Experience Influence Today's Work Commute?

Green Streets’ April survey question compares childhood school travel modes to today’s work commute choices. We asked 1,349 adults who logged a work commute for April's Walk/Ride Day, a day of transportation awareness, how they commuted in elementary school and high school. Ninety four percent answered the question. Most of these respondents are involved in the Green Streets Commuter Challenge through their Boston-area employer. The chart below shows the evolution of participants' commuting experiences and behaviors.

Research shows that healthy habits (eating, exercise etc.) learned young continue into adulthood. So do the transportation choices of elementary school aged parents carry through into adulthood? Similarly, do the transportation choices of high school students influence how they choose commute to work? Mobility Lab researcher Lama Bou Mjahed has conducted extensive research on this topic and finds that childhood walking behavior leads to stronger walking habits in adulthood. Her work is comprehensive and takes into account geographic and demographic differences while we only looked at the travel modes of adults taking part in a sustainable transportation awareness program who all work in the Boston-area today.

Sustainable transportation decisions in elementary school carry over to adulthood

Our Walk/Ride Day participants are more inclined to choose sustainable travel modes today compared to the general Boston-area population, with 20% reporting that they drive alone to work (compared to about 50% of those who commute to Boston). Were their parents partly responsible for these sustainable decisions? Our data seems to indicate that they were.

In elementary school, only 21% of April participants reported driving to school, a far lower percentage than the national average at the time when most of our participants attended elementary school. Three-quarters of our participants are between the ages of 19 and 49. They would have attended elementary school between the late 1970s and early 2000s. In 1977, the National Household Travel Survey reported that 62% of children between the ages of 5 and 15 were using a private vehicle while 15% walked and 15% used the school bus. Today’s national average for children going to school by private car is 54% (see the Children’s Travel to School from the National Household Travel Survey). This percentage wasn't always this high. In 1969, only 16% of children were driven to school while 42% of children walked.

Though not necessarily in high school

While the travel behaviors they were exposed to in elementary school may have influenced their choices in adulthood, they seem to have had less of an impact on mode choice decisions in high school when almost 60% of participants chose to drive to school. The national average for high school students driving to school today is 75% (see this CDC study). The desire to fit in with peers and the need for independence from parents may explain this behavioral shift towards driving.

But, most who drove in elementary and/or high School, don’t Drive today

The good news is that driving behavior in high school (and in elementary school) did not carry through to adulthood. Those who drove to elementary school or high school are as likely to commute sustainably today as participants who didn’t drive school. Between 80% and 90% of those who drove in elementary or high school are selecting a sustainable mode today and between 11% and 22% drive today, in line with our group's average of 21%.

Cycling to school increases the likelihood of bike commuting to work in adulthood by two

While driving behavior in childhood does not correlate with the decision to drive in adulthood, biking behavior does. Those who biked to school in both elementary and high school are twice as likely to bike to work today (40% of those who biked to high school bike today versus 18% of those who did not bike to high school).

In conclusion: travel behavior in childhood influences choices in adulthood, but many other factors are Involved

Our participants’ commuting behavior in childhood appear to influence their mode choices in adulthood, though travel mode experiences in the early years are by no means the only factors affecting work commute decisions. The driving data shows that behaviors change for many reasons. Other factors may include changes in location, values/beliefs, cultural norms, policies and economics around car ownership etc. For example, we know that many of our participants are drawn to our organization because they believe in the benefits of active and public transportation. This view was not necessarily prevalent in high school when many chose to drive.

The data shows the critical importance of getting our children to commute sustainably today if we want to see more sustainable transportation behavior in the future. But, we should also be focusing on our adults today. We cannot wait a generation or two before we see meaningful mode shifts towards cycling, walking and transit. We must do more to reduce the need to drive to work now through infrastructure changes, transit investments and changes to cultural norms around transportation, especially in the workplace.

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