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A synthesis of research addressing children’s, young people’s and parents’ views of walking and cycling for transport. Summary

This report presents the findings from a systematic review of the research evidence relating to the public’s views of walking and cycling, in particular the views of children, young people and parents. The need for such a review was recognised in light of an effectiveness review of interventions promoting a shift away from car travel towards more active modes of transport, the ‘modal shift’ review (Ogilvie et al., 2004). This found equivocal evidence of effectiveness for population-level interventions that promote walking and cycling as alternatives to car use. Where effectiveness findings are unclear, if they are synthesised with a review of studies addressing how people offered the interventions view them, their aims and circumstances, they can offer an explanation and possible ways forward (Oliver et al., 2004). Synthesising views studies and effectiveness studies together can lead to more specific recommendations for developing interventions, choosing which to evaluate rigorously, as well as which to implement as policy.

To maximise the utility of the findings, an Advisory Group of stakeholders was convened to guide the focus of this review of views studies. Findings from these were then used to interrogate the reviewed effectiveness data in order to suggest why and how interventions work, or not.

The review of views studies concludes that children's, young people's and parents’ views about what helps and hinders their walking and cycling involves the strong culture of car use, the fear and dislike of local environments, children as responsible transport users, and parental responsibility for their children. ‘Cultures of transport’ vary by age, sex and location (urban, suburban or rural). Developing effective and appropriate interventions calls for further examination of these differences.

Synthesising these findings with the ‘modal shift’ review’s effectiveness findings identified some interventions that are appropriate and effective; and some that may be promising either because they appear effective in some studies, but not others, or because they complement people’s views, but have not been rigorously evaluated for their effects. Effective interventions to be adapted for wider use include social marketing, with and without the development of cycle networks. Choosing Health (Department of Health, 2004b) sets out the importance of using a social marketing approach to encourage positive health behaviour. These interventions may show more benefit if implemented together. Interventions which may be effective include traffic calming and raised crossing places but these require further evaluation.

Studies of people’s views have several implications for intervention. The most important is the need to reduce the convenience of car travel and simultaneously increase the safety of pedestrians and cyclists in residential areas and around schools. According to the research evidence, this would encourage children, young people and parents to walk and cycle, and to use public spaces more, which would strengthen overall community environments. Furthermore, this could lead to more opportunities to nurture children's and young people's independence in a safer environment.

Other barriers on which to focus intervention development are preferences for cars and the cultural attitudes which make car ownership a status issue; the promotion of walking and cycling as ‘cool'; parental concerns about children's safety from both accidents and personal attack; and the factors which influence transport choice within families, particularly expectations about parenting.


There is currently widespread policy concern about the decreasing rates of physical activity and the increasing incidence of obesity and chronic disease in the UK. The promotion of walking and cycling as a part of everyday activity is a promising way in which to increase physical activity across wide sectors of the population. Walking and cycling provides the opportunity to build physical activity into daily lives. This could contribute to meeting the Chief Medical Officer’s recommendations for children to partake in at least 60 minutes of moderate physical activity each day (Department of Health, 2004b). In addition, these public health goals are consistent with cross-sectoral interest in the wider social and environmental benefits of a shift away from car travel to non-motorised forms of transport.

Research questions

This review seeks to answer two questions:

What research has been undertaken about the public's views of walking and cycling as modes of transport?

How do children’s, young people’s and parents’ views of the barriers to, and facilitators of, walking and cycling match interventions evaluated for their effects on walking and cycling?

The review was conducted in three parts. First, we searched for and mapped the existing research literature on the general public's views of walking and cycling. Second, we conducted an in-depth review of a subset of this literature, the scope of which was selected by our Advisory Group, focusing on the views of children, young people and parents. Third, we synthesised the findings relating to these ‘views studies’ together with the research on interventions carried out by Ogilvie et al. (2004). The overall conclusions of the review are thus based both on international evaluations of specific interventions, and from findings of recent ‘qualitative’ research conducted in the United Kingdom (UK) examining the views and experiences of children, young people and parents.

Mapping the research

We found 97 studies of the public's views which were included in the first (mapping) stage of the review. This research used a variety of different methods, ranging from closed questions in surveys to more in-depth qualitative research using interviews or focus groups. The research was conducted in locations across the UK, although more studies focused on urban than on rural populations. More studies were about cycling than walking, and about one-third concerned choice about mode of transport in general. Some studies concentrated on specific types of journey: one- third concerned commuting and slightly fewer focused on the school run.

As with all systematic reviews, although comprehensive methods were used to search for studies, it is possible that some relevant research has been missed. We invite readers to contact us if they know of relevant published or unpublished studies that have not been included in the review.

The research in-depth

Of the 97 studies identified in the map, 34 examined children's, young people's or parents’ views. Of those, 18 were excluded on quality grounds, leaving a total of 16 studies. The remaining studies used a number of different methodologies. More of these studies concerned walking than cycling. The populations represented a fairly even spread of age ranges, from very young children to young adults and parents. Most collected data in schools.

Analysis of this research revealed four recurrent themes drawn from the views of children, young people and parents: a culture of car use; fear and dislike of local environments; children as responsible transport users; and parental responsibility and behaviour.

Views reflected a culture of car use which reinforced perceptions of the benefits of travel by car and discouraged the use of alternative modes. In addition, both children and parents expressed fear and dislike of local environments, including concerns about safety, traffic, and inadequate facilities for cyclists and pedestrians. However, children had their own views about transport and perceived themselves to be responsible transport users in their own right. Finally, parents’ perceptions of their own roles and responsibilities, and children's views of these, influenced transport choice at the level of the family. All these themes differed in importance and content according to factors such as children's age, sex, and location.

When examining the systematic review of intervention effectiveness to see whether interventions appeared to address these views, it became apparent that some effective interventions have targeted the second of these themes – the public's fear and dislike of their local environments. Social marketing strategies, which provided tailored information about the benefits of walking and cycling, are interventions which are both appropriate and effective. Social marketing strategies provided in combination with cycle networks are also effective. Further, it appears necessary to target interventions specific to the ages, sex, location and socio-economic status of participants.

Specific recommendations include the following:

  • thoughtful adoption and adaptation of effective social marketing interventions
  • encouraging walking and cycling as activities which promote both physical and psychosocial health, to parents as well as to children
  • close inspection of cycle networks in Delft and elsewhere in order to identify the active elements of effective design and rigorously evaluate new networks
  • close inspection of the impact of traffic calming studies on active transport, in order to identify promising interventions for rigorous evaluation
  • rigorous evaluation of traffic restraint and related measures for their effects on walking and cycling.
  • marketing of walking and cycling to children as environmentally friendly, within rigorous evaluations
  • rigorous evaluations of interventions addressing cycle crime
  • rigorous evaluations of interventions that encourage children to discuss with their parents the ways and reasons to reduce car use in favour of more active forms of transport
  • designing interventions tailored to the target audience’s age, sex, socio-economic status (SES) and location
  • consideration of the views of children, young people and parents in order to develop interventions to address concerns about personal safety
  • interventions combining improved pedestrian facilities, traffic restraint and publicity campaigns be attempted first within a rigorously evaluated intervention to determine whether they are specifically effective in improving active transport
  • marketing walking and cycling as ‘cool’ to appeal to children, within rigorous evaluations
  • close inspection of studies addressing concerns about accidents in order to identify the likely active elements of effective interventions
  • careful development and evaluation of interventions to promote children's walking and cycling to parents, by balancing messages about safety and risk to future health through inactivity with those encouraging children's independent mobility
  • rigorous evaluations of interventions that promote the idea that being a ‘good’ parent means demonstrating appropriate walking and cycling behaviour, and allowing children to walk and cycle in order to encourage independence safely, while simultaneously caring for the environment

Interventions to address the culture of car use, the recognition of children as responsible transport users, or parent's responsibilities and their behaviour toward heir children in terms of active transport have been less frequently addressed by interventions. Several interventions which changed the infrastructure (e.g. traffic calming, cycle lanes, road-user charges) may be appropriate for children, young people and parents, but require further evaluation with these specific groups.

The contribution of this review to policy

The key message from this systematic review is that interventions will not work unless public views about the value, safety, benefits and costs of walking and cycling are taken into account. This information will thus be of interest to parents and children, government policy-makers at the national and local level, schools, and research funding bodies.

Policy-makers need to understand that perceived safety is a key influence on walking and cycling, but that environmental improvements and facilities can encourage a shift away from car culture. The studies examined indicated that influential factors operated not just at an individual level but often at a family, community and environmental level. This indicates that interventions need to be tailored to fit more carefully with people’s preferences and priorities, rather than start from technical or professional assumptions about what is best for people.

The in-depth review revealed that any interventions designed to increase walking and cycling need to be carefully matched to age, sex and location. Children and young people value the social aspects of physical activity. Younger children in particular want to walk and cycle, and are not as susceptible as older children to the notion of cars as ‘cool’. Interventions aimed at improving environments for younger children would be likely to be most productive but must be combined with messages to parents that encourage walking and cycling as part of ‘good parenting’ and restrictions to make car use less attractive. The review also raises the question of whether targeting higher socio-economic groups might be a more productive strategy.

It seems that there is little evidence of effectiveness in the population-level intervention studies designed to increase walking and cycling. Since a great deal of resource is spent on interventions, the conclusions of our review inevitably raise questions about whether this money is well spent. Given the emphasis in much of the transport literature on rigorous quantitative methods, it was surprising that a number of the intervention studies did not have control groups or did not use standardised measures to assess changes in behaviour or the effectiveness of environmental or engineering changes. Assumptions are thus still being made that interventions will be valuable in increasing walking and cycling, even if they are not grounded in rigorous research methods and do not incorporate an understanding of people’s priorities and choices.

Our work highlights two effective, promising and appropriate interventions: (1) the extension and improvement of cycle networks, and (2) the creation of tailored marketing messages for subsets of children, young people and parents – specifically geared to appeal to different ages, socio-economic classes, sexes and locations. The latter issue is crucial for policy-makers and planners: the review found evidence that cycling and walking schemes did not work, and this is likely to be because either inappropriate messages were given or because the intervention did not gather (and thus address) the expressed needs of the target group. Our review noted that none of the intervention studies had tried to change people’s views about car culture or parenting, dealt with concerns about safety or used positive messages that children have expressed in the views studies about the convenience or social advantages of walking and cycling.

Finally, the review gives some clear pointers about further research that is needed: into the family’s influence on walking and cycling, issues of personal safety, convenience and the social value of these means of transport for children. Sub-group analysis is essential to capture views and understand how motivations vary across different age groups and sex, locations and socio-economic class.

This report should be cited as: Brunton G, Oliver S, Oliver K, Lorenc T (2006) A Synthesis of Research Addressing Children's, Young People’s and Parents’ Views of Walking and Cycling for Transport. London: EPPI Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.

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