Children’s Independent Mobility: An International Comparison
Children’s independent mobility matters for a variety of reasons, including the ability to be autonomous and safe outside the home, staying physically fit and reducing the risk of obesity, and developing social and practical skills. Losing this independence can leave children less self-sufficient, less healthy and less free. It is therefore vital to understand the ways in which the ability to travel independently have changed and what this implies for society and future policy.
Download the report
The full report can be downloaded here.
Summary of the report
This report is the latest in a series looking at the personal mobility and travel patterns of children. The first was published in 1971, looking at children’s mobility in England. A follow-up study, published in 1990, expanded the survey to look at children in what was then West Germany. A third study looking at childhood mobility was published in 2010, providing a unique set of longitudinal data, stretching over four decades. The changes in children’s independent mobility have been striking. For example, in 1971 in England, 55 per cent of children under 10 were allowed to travel alone to places other than school that were within walking distance; by 2010, almost no children under 10 were allowed to do so.
This report expands the available data geographically, covering 16 countries: Australia, Brazil, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Sweden. The children involved were aged from seven to 15.
The aim of the study was to answer four questions:
1. How does children’s independent mobility vary within, between, and across the countries involved in the study?
2. What are the factors that affect the observed levels of children’s independent mobility?
3. What are the implications of changes in children’s independent mobility for children and their physical and social development, their parents’ lifestyles and for society in general?
4. How should policymakers respond to the challenges posed by the findings?
In order to answer these questions, we have coordinated the collection of international datasets on children’s independent mobility from 16 countries across the world, conducted a comparative analysis of these data and held an international workshop to discuss and develop the findings and policy responses, with a particular, but not exclusive, focus on UK policy.
The surveys used for this report were very similar to those used in 1971 and 1990. Headteachers in participating primary and secondary schools were asked to select classes that were broadly typical of their year group. Pupils completed the survey in class, then took another survey home to be completed by their parents or guardians. As well as asking about children’s freedom to travel, both to school and in their localities, the surveys also examined children’s and parents’ attitudes and fears, mobile phone and car ownership, socio-demographics, and other potentially relevant factors.
Summary of results
Overall, Finland is the top-performing country across almost every independent mobility indicator in this study, coming second only to Germany for children’s self-reported freedom to travel on local buses alone. At the age of seven, a majority of Finnish children can already travel to places within walking distance or cycle to places alone; by the age of eight, a majority can cross main roads, travel home from school and go out after dark alone; by the time they reach nine, a majority can cycle on main roads alone, and by age 10 a majority can travel on local buses alone. In contrast, children in Italy are, for example, between three and four years behind their Finnish and German counterparts in terms of their freedom to travel on local buses alone.
In 2013, Unicef published a comparative overview of child well-being across twenty-nine OECD and EU countries (Unicef, 2013) using national data from 2009 and 2010, coinciding with the start of data collection for this study of children’s independent mobility. Our report found that there is a positive correlation between Unicef well-being scores and the rank scores measuring children’s degree of freedom to travel and play without adult supervision in these countries. There is also a positive correlation between the education attainment of children, based on national Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings in 2009 and children’s degree of freedom to travel and play without adult supervision in these countries.
Of the three factors examined, traffic seems to be the strongest factor affecting the granting of independent mobility, with ‘strangers’ showing a weak effect and community supervision not being a factor. However, the correlation between traffic deaths and the ranking of countries for independent mobility is weak. On the other hand, almost all of the countries with the highest levels of children’s independent mobility have national policies to promote walking or cycling, and the local authorities in these countries are permitted to set lower speed limits than those defined at the national level. Car and mobile-phone ownership rates in the countries in the study seem to have little impact on children’s freedom of movement. The study also examines the role of gender, variability in daylight hours and cycling in children’s mobility.
Arising from the research findings and discussion, the report makes four observations and seven recommendations.
1. Unsafe environments for children are widely tolerated
2. Withholding independent mobility may only defer risk to older children
3. Action is needed to address parental concerns, road user behaviour, the physical environment, social and cultural factors
4. Change in transport policy and behaviour may be resisted but it actually happens all the time
1. Implement and enforce stringent road safety measures
2. Reduce car dependency and the dominance of traffic in the public realm
3. Put the needs of children at the heart of urban development – cities that work for children, work for everyone
4. Explicitly incorporate children’s independent mobility into policy
5. Adopt Daylight Saving Time to allow children to better utilise daylight hours and reduce road casualties
6. Invest in research to consolidate and develop knowledge on children’s independent mobility
7. Create a national challenge fund to catalyse and drive action to improving children’s independent mobility
Report and appendices
- Children’s Independent Mobility: An International Comparison and Recommendations for Action
- Appendix I - Survey methodology and country details
- Appendix II - Workshop Report
- Appendix III - Working Paper Policies
- Ireland: Children’s Independent Mobility on the island of Ireland
- Israel: Case Study of the Arab Population Group
- Italy: Children’s Independent Mobility in Italy - English | Italian
- Japan: Danger from Traffic to Fear of Monkeys: children’s independent mobility in four diverse sites in Japan
- Norway: Children’s Everyday Travel in Oslo, Akershus and Buskerud Counties in Norway - English | Norwegian
- Portugal: Children’s Independent Mobility in Portugal 2011/2012
- Sweden: Children’s Independent Mobility in Sweden
- Australia: Rudner, J., Malone, K. (2011) Childhood in the Suburbs and the Australian Dream: how has it impacted children’s independent mobility?, Global Studies of Childhood
- Australia: Schoeppe, S et al (2015) Australian children’s independent mobility levels: secondary analyses of cross-sectional data between 1991 and 2012, Children’s Geographies
- Australia: Children’s Independent Mobility in Australia
- Brazil: Children’s Independent Mobility in Brazil - English (see also background) | Portuguese
- Denmark: Safe traffic - child policy? (in Danish)
- Finland: Children’s Independent Mobility in Finland
- France: Children’s Independent Mobility: Survey in French Brittany (2011)
- Israel: Case Study of the Jewish Population Group
- South Africa: Children’s independent mobility in South Africa, with specific reference to Cape Town and its hinterland (see also: Behrens, R., and Machala, P., 2011. Child Independent Mobility in South Africa: the case of Cape Town and its hinterland Global Studies of Childhood, Volume 1 Number 3)
- Sri Lanka: Children’s Independent Mobility: Five Different Settlement Types in Sri Lanka
- My child travels home from school alone (parent answers)
- My child is allowed to go places within walking distance alone (parent answers)
- My child is allowed to cross main roads alone (parent answers)
- My child is usually allowed to go out alone after dark (parent answers)
- My child is allowed to cycle on main roads alone (parent answers)
- My child is usually allowed to travel on local buses alone (parent answers)
- Allowed to cross main roads alone
- Allowed to cycle to places alone
- Allowed to travel on local buses alone
With great thanks to the researchers who collaborated with us in this study to collect and analyse data for the 16 countries involved, as well as the individuals and funders supporting them, without all of whom this would not have been possible.
In alphabetical order by country:
- Australia: Alison Carver, David Crawford, Anna Timperio
- Brazil: Aline de Melo Nascimento, Arthur Rodolfo Gomes de Oliveira, Giselle Xavier, Yaeko Yamashita
- Denmark: Trine Fotel, Jeppe Kirkelund Søndergaard
- Finland: Jukka Hirvonen, Marketta Kyttä, Iiris Pirjola
- France: Elodie Brisset, Olivier David, Régis Keerle, Lucie Kostrzewa, Tiphraine Laigre, Alain Legendre, Adeline Legendre, Arnaud Lepetit, Sarah Maheo, Dominique Munchenbach, Enora Ripaud
- Germany: Rainer Benien, Corinna Berger, Dennis Edler, Bjorn Frauendienst, Manfred Hommel, Katharina Meyer, Markus Müller, Stefan Philipp, Andreas Redecker, Manuel Schneider
- Ireland: Michael Healy, Alanna O’Beirne, Brendan O’Keeffe, Aidan Scanlon
- Israel: Wafa Elias, Yoram Shiftan
- Italy: Alfredo Alietti, Antonella Prisco, Daniela Renzi, Monica Vercesi, Provincia di Roma, Provincia di Monza e Brianza
- Japan: Riela Provi Drianda, Isami Kinoshita
- Norway: Guro Berge, Anne-Line Bergli, Cecilie Bergmann, Beate Elvebakk, Marit Espeland, Aslak Fyhri, Stein Owe Hansen, Randi Hjorthol, Einar Jensen Saga
- Portugal: Ana Cristina Arez, Rita Cordovil, Frederico Henriques, Frederico Lopes, Duarte Moreno, Carlos Neto, Sylvie Oliveira, Silvia Shrubsall, Ana Sofia Tojo
- South Africa: Roger Behrens, Patrick Muchaka
- Sri Lanka: Jagath Munasinghe, Julie Rudner, Naduni Wickramaarachchil
- Sweden: Pia Björklid, Mats Gummesson
- UK: Sarah Bell, Christine Bertram, Alex Cecchinelli, Alice Dalton, Annalisa Fagan-Watson, Ben Fagan-Watson, Mayer Hillman, Tim Jones, Karen MacKinnon, Monica Martini, Camila Oliveria, Alyssa Pennini, Ben Shaw, Matt Shaw, Ashley Slisz
Thanks are also due to Ann Kenrick and Daniel Sauter for their help.