Cars line up in traffic on a freeway in Los Angeles
More than two-thirds of high school students get to school by car. Mike Blake/Reuters

Children who live farther away from their schools get significantly less sleep and exercise, new research shows.

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We live in a car society, so it’s no surprise that more and more kids take cars to school. Today, nearly 60 percent of kids get to school by car, almost four times as many as in the late 1960s, when just 16 percent of children did so.

One study quantifies what many intuit: Long commutes to school have negative impacts on children’s well-being, especially on sleep and exercise. The research by Carole Turley Voulgaris of California Polytechnic State University, Michael J. Smart of Rutgers University, and Brian D. Taylor of UCLA, takes a detailed look at how lengthy commutes affect the time kids devote to other daily activities. To get at this, the researchers analyzed more than 2,700 high-school students’ responses from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, spanning from 2003 to 2015.

Specifically, they track how much time high-school students between 15- and 19-years old spend on sleep, exercise, and six other activities: studying, socializing, watching television, working a job, participating in extracurricular activities, and engaging in leisure (such as playing games or using the computer). The study looks only at the effect of morning commutes, since many students are engaged in after-school activities which take them to multiple destinations.

First, the good news: The average commute was short, roughly 18 minutes. The most common commute was even shorter, averaging 5 and 10 minutes. But a small number of students endures commutes of a greater than an hour.

Overall, more than two-thirds (68 percent) of students surveyed get to school by car: 36 percent are passengers and 32 percent drive themselves to school. Roughly a fifth of students (22 percent) use conventional public transit or school bus. The researchers note that it is likely that a large share of these commutes are by school bus, since many of the students live in areas that either do not have public transit or do not offer convenient transit routes to schools. Just 9 percent of students walk or bike to school, according to the study.

Mode of Commute to School

Mode Number of students Percent of students
Car (driver) 860 32
Car (passenger) 983 36
Active (walking or biking) 245 9
Public Transit (including school bus) 610 22
Other mode or unknown 9 1
Total 2,707 100

The bad news is that long commutes take a substantial toll on students’ sleep and exercise. On average, the students surveyed sleep eight hours and 17 minutes per night, but 8 percent got less than 6 hours of sleep.

Each additional minute of commuting is associated with an even greater 1.3-minute reduction in sleep. To put that in perspective, if one student had a 10-minute commute, and a second had a 30- minute commute, the second student would get an average of 26 minutes less sleep. Interestingly, girls average about 24 minutes less sleep than boys. And higher-income students also get slightly less sleep: A doubling in household income is associated with 7 minutes less in sleep.

Long commutes take an even bigger toll on exercise, a big problem given the growing obesity epidemic among children. More than 60 percent of students did not exercise at all according to the study. Of the nearly 40 percent who did, they devoted more than an hour to exercise and a small percentage, likely athletes, reported spending as much as 3 to 5 hours a day exercising.

Students with commutes of fewer than 30 minutes got as much as an hour and 15 minutes more exercise than those with longer commutes. Those who walk or bike to school also got an hour and 11 minutes more exercise than those who commute by car. Here the study finds that walking or biking to school is a “substitute for, rather than a complement to, other forms of exercise,” meaning it is typically the only exercise these kids get. Higher-income kids tend to get more exercise, with a doubling of household income associated with 13-minutes more time exercising.

So what else do kids do with their time? Not surprisingly, they spend more time watching TV than just about anything else. Nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of kids reported watching TV, spending slightly more than two hours each day. About 40 percent spend time engaging in leisure activities for an average of one hour and 45 minutes. Better, more than half of kids said they spend time studying, for an average of an hour and 43 minutes. But troublingly, half of students said they spent no time socializing. Of the half who did, they did so for roughly an hour a day.

Interestingly, commute time seems to affect only sleep and exercise; there was little association with time spent on the other activities. The authors note that, “The extra time spent commuting must come from somewhere, and unfortunately it appears that the activities that students are most likely to sacrifice are precisely those with important consequences for their physical health: exercise and sleep.” This is disturbing, considering a huge slew of research shows the devastating effects of limited sleep and exercise on teenagers’ physical and mental health.

There is a lot of finger pointing over the lack of sleep teens get. Many blame early school start times that are out of sync with their sleep habits, but the real culprit is our car-oriented culture and suburban sprawl. This is not just a result of people moving farther and farther out for affordable housing or better schools. The study points out that three school policies have compounded this resulting in growing “school sprawl.”

For one, many rural districts are consolidating small schools into larger ones. Two, some areas’ policies favor new-school construction over the renovation of existing buildings, pushing districts to locate new schools on the margins of urban areas where land is cheaper. Three, school choice policies allow students to attend public schools farther away from where they live. Such policies are typically framed only in terms of school costs and quality of education, but should also be considered through the consequences on students’ mental and physical health.

Of course, we cannot magically move all students closer to schools or retrofit our suburbs for denser school districts. Long commutes to school are literally baked into our sprawling suburban landscape, determined by factors like housing costs and location, school development patterns, traffic congestion, and the lack of public transit in many places.

The researchers make a few suggestions to alleviate long commutes: Facilitate more efficient service to schools by public transit operators, and increase eligibility for school bus service to all students who do not live within walking or biking distance to school. Until that happens, the authors write, organizing carpool systems would help get students who do not live near good service and who lack personal transit, to school more quickly.

Reducing commutes to school would not only take pressure off our already congested roads, it would provide a big boost to the health and wellness of America’s teens.

CityLab editorial fellow Claire Tran contributed research and editorial assistance to this article.

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