Open Access Open Badges Research

How well do modelled routes to school record the environments children are exposed to?: a cross-sectional comparison of GIS-modelled and GPS-measured routes to school

Flo Harrison12*, Thomas Burgoine1, Kirsten Corder1, Esther MF van Sluijs1 and Andy Jones12

Author Affiliations

1 UKCRC Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR), MRC Epidemiology Unit, University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine, Box 285 Institute of Metabolic Science, Cambridge Biomedical Campus, Cambridge CB2 0QQ, UK

2 Norwich Medical School, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK

For all author emails, please log on.

International Journal of Health Geographics 2014, 13:5  doi:10.1186/1476-072X-13-5

Published: 14 February 2014



The school journey may make an important contribution to children’s physical activity and provide exposure to food and physical activity environments. Typically, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have been used to model assumed routes to school in studies, but these may differ from those actually chosen. We aimed to identify the characteristics of children and their environments that make the modelled route more or less representative of that actually taken. We compared modelled GIS routes and actual Global Positioning Systems (GPS) measured routes in a free-living sample of children using varying travel modes.


Participants were 175 13-14 yr old children taking part in the Sport, Physical activity and Eating behaviour: Environmental Determinants in Young people (SPEEDY) study who wore GPS units for up to 7 days. Actual routes to/from school were extracted from GPS data, and shortest routes between home and school along a road network were modelled in a GIS. Differences between them were assessed according to length, percentage overlap, and food outlet exposure using multilevel regression models.


GIS routes underestimated route length by 21.0% overall, ranging from 6.1% among walkers to 23.2% for bus users. Among pedestrians food outlet exposure was overestimated by GIS routes by 25.4%. Certain characteristics of children and their neighbourhoods that improved the concordance between GIS and GPS route length and overlap were identified. Living in a village raised the odds of increased differences in length (odds ratio (OR) 3.36 (1.32-8.58)), while attending a more urban school raised the odds of increased percentage overlap (OR 3.98 (1.49-10.63)). However none were found for food outlet exposure. Journeys home from school increased the difference between GIS and GPS routes in terms of food outlet exposure, and this measure showed considerable within-person variation.


GIS modelled routes between home and school were not truly representative of accurate GPS measured exposure to obesogenic environments, particularly for pedestrians. While route length may be fairly well described, especially for urban populations, those living close to school, and those travelling by foot, the additional expense of acquiring GPS data seems important when assessing exposure to route environments.

Route to school; Food environment; Physical activity environment; Geographic information systems; Global positioning systems