Only 26% of children and adolescents aged 3 to 17 in Germany achieve the physical activity (PA) as described by the guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO) [1
]. Active commuting to school (ACTS) is regarded as an additional opportunity to increase PA before and after school and is highly recommended for school-aged children and adolescents [2
]. Cycling is one mode of ACTS and has additional benefits compared to walking for the following reasons: (i) Compared to 25% of walkers, 36% of children and adolescents who cycle to school meet the weekly PA recommendation [3
]; (ii) ACTS by bicycle has been generally associated with higher PA intensity than walking, with positive effects on cardiovascular fitness in children and adolescents [4
] leading to a risk reduction of developing cardiovascular diseases; (iii) cycling increases the mobility of students who need to manage a longer home-to-school distance when engaging in ACTS [5
]; (iv) in cities, a bicycle is considered the fastest means of transportation for distances less than 5 km [7
], which is more time-efficient (especially when car traffic is congested); and v) ACTS by bicycle is more positively associated with cycling than walking to other destinations [3
], possibly establishing a potentially lifelong active travel (AT) routine by bicycle. Over time, this maintained behavior routine is useful because it predicts PA in adults [8
]. Despite these well-known benefits of ACTS by bicycle and the fact that 57% to 98% of children and adolescents aged up to 17 years in Germany own a bicycle [9
], why only 8% [10
] to 22.2% [11
] of them cycle to and from school remains as yet an unknown. Furthermore, the reasons why more boys (23.8%) than girls (20.6%) in Germany cycle to school are still unclear [11
]. In a recent systematic review of school-based ACTS interventions focusing on cycling, we found that only one in seven strategies was promising and that two grade levels between 3rd and 7th grade were chosen [12
]. Moreover, analysis of gender differences has been performed for only one intervention, which indicated an unexplained beneficial effect on boys but not on girls [13
According to the Model of Children’s Active Travel (M-CAT) [14
], the main factors influencing children’s travel behavior include “objective characteristics” of the child (e.g., age, gender, school attended), parent (e.g., social status) or family (e.g., size), and further objective elements in physical (e.g., population density), economic (e.g., costs), or political-socio-cultural environments (e.g., school). Some previous research indicates that parents’ gender predicts positive associations between parental characteristics and a child’s ACTS (e.g., employed mothers [15
], mothers actively commuting to work [16
]). Moreover, M-CAT considers parent and child’s “perception elements” including attitudes (e.g., benefits or risks), the environment (e.g., favorable or unfavorable), and the child (e.g., sense of responsibility, knowledge of road safety, cycling skills) [14
]. Because perception is based on “objective characteristics” [14
], it can be influenced by the child or parents’ gender, so perception can also impact on the child’s ACTS. Previous research has reported influential factors identified by both parents of children aged 9 to 12 (e.g., perceived convenience of using the car to drive the child to school), whereas other factors were gender-specific to mothers (e.g., a child’s lack of interest) [17
]. In conclusion, interaction among all these factors influences the outcome, i.e., parents and children’s decisions on children’s engagement in ACTS, as well as events occurring during children’s engagement (e.g., bullying) [14
]. According to M-CAT, children make the final decision on whether they engage in a certain behavior [14
], making them experts on their own behavior [18
]. Their autonomy, independence, and personal responsibility increase with maturation, while the parents’ role and influence as supporters or decision-makers (i.e., ultimate allowance or restriction) simultaneously decrease [14
]. Besides the child and its parents, M-CAT mentions schoolteachers as important interactors in the socialization process of ACTS [14
]. In addition to the teaching mission, schoolteachers also follow an educational mission according to German laws and are commonly seen as role models on who should practice whatever they emphasize in school lessons [19
]. Contrary to previous research on parents, we could not find a gender-specific analysis of teachers’ perspectives on ACTS.
Following this, parents at home and teachers at school educate and observe the child, making them experts on the child’s behavior and needs [20
]. Parents and teachers can be aware of aspects influencing their decision to support the child’s ACTS [14
], but the child, due to strengths, deficits, and stage of maturation, might not perceive them. This circumstance has already been confirmed in previous research, in which parents and their child had different perspectives on barriers of ACTS [15
] and, conversely, needs. In addition, parents identified more barriers to ACTS than children [15
]. Moreover, complementary and stimulating impulses of the child, parents, and teachers’ perceptions, especially in the gender context [14
], might favor a successful socialization process of ACTS [21
Therefore, our concept mapping study analyzed how perceptions of students, parents, and teachers differed by gender about what children and adolescents aged 12 to 15 in Germany need to cycle daily to and from school. Knowledge of potential similarities and discrepancies in gender-specific perspectives of students, parents, and teachers on perceived needs is necessary to develop future gender-sensitive, school-based bicycle interventions.
Our concept mapping study analyzed factors needed by children and adolescents aged 12 to 15 in Germany to ride their bicycles to school every day based on gender perspectives of students, parents, and teachers. We found that every boy but not every girl owned a bicycle; this should be considered in future interventions (e.g., provision of bicycles) because only students who own a bicycle can actually cycle to school. Additionally, considerably more boys than girls cycled to school, in line with previous research in Germany [11
]. Despite asking a similar question in this study, however, cycling rates were much higher (girls: 44.4% vs. 20.6%, boys: 72.9% vs. 23.8%) [11
], suggesting that rates of cycling to school might have changed from 2003–2006 [11
] and 2019. Nevertheless, cycling to school was not a daily habit in our sample, indicating room for improvement. Even though our low ICC, calculated for the within and between variance of days per week students cycled to the three participating schools, is in line with previously reported ICCs for group-randomized intervention designs (0.1 to 0.3 [32
]), very low ICCs of 0.05 or 0.01 can lead to a meaningful bias in the results of significance tests [30
] due to variances. Following this, researchers should keep a potential variance in mind when planning a school-based bicycle intervention (i.e., several schools per intervention condition in group-randomized designs). Contrary to our intention, we could not analyze fathers’ perspectives and compare them with mothers’ data due to the small number of complete data for fathers. Between girls and boys, we found one difference in clustering. Only girls clustered answers into “social behavior in road traffic.” For each cluster, ratings of importance and feasibility were very similar in girls and boys. Between female and male teachers, we found differences in four clusters. Male teachers classified clusters into broader subjects, i.e., the cluster “motivation and social aspects” included “awareness” and the cluster “infrastructure” included “way to school” as well as “storage and changing room.” Only female teachers clustered answers into “role of parents” and “sense of safety.” For each cluster, ratings of importance and feasibility were very similar in female and male teachers.
4.1. Clusters in Concept Maps
4.1.1. Similar Clusters in Concept Maps of Mothers and Students and Teachers Independent of Gender
The need for a “bicycle and related equipment” (e.g., lock, bicycle, helmet, reflectors, lights) was stated by students, teachers, and mothers. When children and adolescents want to cycle to school, the basic necessity of bicycle ownership is indisputable. As every boy and nearly every girl in our sample owned a bicycle, providing all students in our sample with a bicycle in a future intervention does not seem necessary. Regarding bicycle-related equipment, previous research remained unclear on whether “the equipment of a child’s bicycle is a potential determinant of cycling to school” [33
] (p. 290). Nevertheless, the only overall effective bicycle intervention in our recent systematic review [12
] was conducted in the USA and provided every child with a bicycle and related equipment (i.e., helmet, lock, lights) prior to the beginning of the intervention [34
]. In our study, girls rated a lock and brakes as important equipment, whereas boys rated only a lock as important equipment. According to German Road Traffic Licensing Regulations, researchers might provide specific equipment (i.e., a bell, two independent brakes, two anti-slip and screwed-on pedals with two yellow reflectors shining to the front and rear, white front and red rear light, two reflectors per wheel, white front, and a red rear reflector [36
]) to ensure the roadworthiness and safety of bicycles in an intervention.
Factors related to the “way to school,” such as less traffic (especially around the school), (wide, signposted, extra) cycle paths, a cycle path guide, and an even route, were identified across all concept maps of students, teachers, and mothers. Traffic density and type of cycle paths (e.g., evenness) were reported as the most important factors for a cycling-friendly environment for children in previous research [37
]. In addition, a cycle path guide (e.g., parental accompaniment while cycling) was positively associated with cycling behavior in children [38
]. Comprehensive changes related to the way to school in school-based interventions require the involvement of municipal stakeholders.
Personal needs were represented in the cluster of students as “requirements” (e.g., motivation, company of friends or classmates), in the clusters of teachers as “motivation and social aspects” and “awareness,” and in clusters of mothers as “requirements” and “motivation and social aspects.” Because previous research also underlined the role of personal factors [39
], it might be relevant to address the three basic psychological needs “autonomy, competence, and relatedness” of Self-Determination Theory [40
] in future interventions with children and adolescents for long-term internalization of cycling-to-school behavior.
4.1.2. Unique Clusters in Concept Maps of Students (In) Dependent of Gender
“Cycle training” (e.g., cycling test, ensure cycling abilities) was identified by both girls and boys. To overcome barriers to cycle to school, cycle training is recommended by the “NZ Transport Agency” [41
]. However, results from a previous study demonstrated that providing only cycle training on the school playground during physical education lessons was not effective in children’s cycling-to-school behavior [42
]. Following this, cycle training content should not only be chosen carefully based on needs mentioned by students but should also be implemented in the natural environment in future interventions to promote cycling to school.
The cluster “social behavior in road traffic” (e.g., more mutual respect, friendly car drivers, paying attention to avoid accidents or dangerous situations) was mentioned only by girls. Besides theoretical knowledge of traffic rules and practical cycling skills, social competences are considered essential for responsible and anticipated participation in road traffic by the “Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs” (KMK) in Germany [43
]. To acquire these competences, the KMK assigns mobility and traffic education to schools [43
]. The reason boys did not mention this cluster might be explained by the observation in Germany that boys have a higher risk of injury in road traffic (accidents) due to more risky behavior than girls [44
]. Therefore, the topic “social behavior in road traffic” is an important element in mobility and traffic education (especially for boys to reflect on the impact of their gender role) [44
4.1.3. Similar and Unique Clusters in Concept Maps of Mothers, and Teachers (In) Dependent of Gender
Mothers and female teachers mentioned the “role of parents,” e.g., not taking the child to school by car. Several theoretical models, for example, the M-CAT [14
] or the “Social-ecological model of the correlates of active transportation” [45
], consider parents’ role as supporters or decision-makers. However, this role’s impact decreases as the child matures [14
]. Additionally, the 12- to 15-year-olds in our sample did not acknowledge their parents’ role. Therefore, future interventions for this age group should empower parents to support children’s need for autonomy, independence, and personal responsibility regarding mobility.
In line with theoretical models [14
], mothers mentioned the cluster “role of the school” (e.g., storage facilities, no vandalism, cycling projects, lighter schoolbags). Additionally, the KMK has defined the teaching and educational role of mobility and traffic in schools [43
], but neither students nor teachers acknowledged this. Therefore, the role of schools should be emphasized in future school-based bicycle interventions.
Mentioned by both female and male teachers, “storage and changing room” referred, for example, to a roofed and monitored bicycle rack or access to changing rooms. Even though students and mothers did not identify this cluster, the lack of or poor quality changing rooms and bicycle racks in schools have been previously reported to influence children and adolescents’ PA behavior negatively [19
]. Students and mothers might not have identified this need if they were satisfied by conditions at their school, but it might be relevant at schools with poor conditions.
Independent of gender, teachers identified the need for “financial aspects” (e.g., financial support to buy a bicycle and related equipment, appropriate clothing, or a bicycle pool for cycle trainings at school). In line with this, M-CAT states parents’ income as a relevant factor for ACTS [14
]. However, mothers and students did not mention this cluster, so financial aspects might not be a major issue for parents (who bear financial responsibility) or for students. Our assumption might be reflected in students’ pervasive bicycle ownership because in our study sample, every boy owned a bicycle and only 12.2% of girls did not. This also makes it unnecessary to provide an entire bicycle pool for cycle training at the three participating schools.
Independent of gender, teachers identified the need for “information and services,” e.g., information about appropriate clothing (rain jacket, pants) and carrier systems, repair service and a bicycle flea market at school, an information evening on advantages (environment and climate, health and fitness, saving money for fuel and public transport tickets, mobility and independence), cycle training including traffic rules, a kick-off event, and school projects (bicycle tour, project day). In grades 5 to 10 (students aged 10 to 15), the KMK explicitly mentions the provision of informational manuals and materials (e.g., about environment and climate), implementation of activities (e.g., ecological school trips), and cooperation with out-of-school partners (e.g., bicycle repair shops) to promote students’ independent mobility [43
]. However, provision of information and services might be feasible but not crucial in the development of future school-based bicycle interventions. Perhaps this is why students and mothers did not consider this need relevant.
Clusters between female and male teachers differed as only female teachers clustered answers into “sense of safety,” i.e., giving the feeling that everyone can use a bicycle to engage in ACTS. As an important barrier to ACTS, children’s personal safety fears were also identified in previous research [39
], and this cluster might be reflected in students’ identified needs for cycle training and social behavior in road traffic. Thus, future school-based bicycle interventions should attempt to establish feelings of safety among students.
4.2. Importance and Feasability
Across students, mothers, and teachers, Likert scale ratings of the degree of importance and feasibility of their provided answers showed not a single extreme response, i.e., very (un) important or (un) feasible. Participants noticeably tended to choose the unimportant/unfeasible or neutral rating categories so that ratings were very similar. Undecidedness [46
], lack of motivation [47
] due to the large number of participants’ answers (students: 98; parents: 90; teachers: 94) that had to be rated, or a question not specific enough [48
] might have led to this central tendency bias. Therefore, findings on ratings should be interpreted with caution.
4.3. Strengths and Limitations
Quantitative analysis of qualitative data in the concept mapping approach could be seen as a strength of this study. Additionally, stratified gender analyses provide a deeper understanding of different perspectives on what is needed for cycling to school. We found one and two unique gender-dependent cluster(s) in students and teachers, respectively. A limitation might be that group sessions were not conducted separately for females and males. Moreover, we could not include grades 7 and 8 in each session at every school since the schools decided the participating grades. Contrary to our previous intention, teachers did not allow us to divide classes of 22 to 32 into smaller groups of 8 to 10 students. This made conducting sessions challenging in terms of personnel, time, and resources (e.g., sufficient computers, stable internet connections) but led to a higher student recruitment rate (i.e., planned: 48; recruited: 136), which is a major strength. In general, participants were interested in the concept mapping sessions and liked getting involved by providing their opinions, which gave us an insight into their perceptions. This might explain why we also exceeded our recruitment goals for parents and teachers (58 and 29 instead of 25 each). Interestingly, more mothers than fathers contributed to the concept mapping sessions. This gender bias in our online survey’s response rate aligns with previous research [49
] and might be explained by differences in perceived parenting responsibilities. Due to small sample sizes as well as high drop-out rates of parents and teachers and to the few regions sampled in Germany, our findings cannot be generalized and might differ in comparison with other nations. Nevertheless, studies using the concept mapping approach in very small samples of five to eight participants are not unusual [50
Throughout our sessions, we were confronted with several difficulties. Participants complained about the time-consuming involvement (e.g., too many answers), the type of survey (i.e., paper/pencil) and other participants’ “absurd” answers (e.g., “I need training wheels”). Furthermore, non-native speakers (e.g., refugees) struggled especially with the amount of information in German. Generally, participants also found it difficult to separate ratings between importance and feasibility. In addition, participants struggled with rating tasks when answers were not applicable to their situations (e.g., students, whose parents were not worried, struggled how to rate “reduction of fear in parents”). Due to technical failures that occurred throughout the sessions with both online programs (Survalyzer, Ariadne), we could not ensure completeness of data (an inclusion criterion for Ariadne analyses). Some of these difficulties might have led to a lowered willingness and motivation to participate, thus possibly explaining the central tendency bias in importance and feasibility ratings and the relatively high drop-out rates, particularly in parents (79.3%) and teachers (62.1%), in contrast with students (26.5%).
Based on our experience from this study, we recommend modifying the concept mapping approach for such a complex subject and/or for its application in large groups due to school rules. To achieve participants’ maximum commitment and to reduce their burden, we suggest conducting all sessions online (especially the clustering task), but in school groups supervised by researchers to ensure personal contact. Another advantage of online sessions is the immediate digital availability of collected data, which eliminates the risk of errors in transferring data manually. We further recommend removing the second online session in which participants check the clarity of answers. Instead, the first online session could be completed with a group brainstorming phase including a clarity check and a removal of duplicates. To make “ACTS by bicycle” less complex for participants (i.e., fewer answers), the main question in the first session could be specified according to factors in the “Social-ecological model of the correlates of active transportation” [45
] (e.g., the needs in terms of environmental factors only). Still, to acquire a comprehensive picture of needs, the concept mapping approach could be conducted for each factor of this model based on more specific questions in different samples (e.g., different classes) in the same schools. Another possibility could be to restrict the number of answers to a more manageable number (e.g., 40 to 70) [51
] by checking duplicates more strictly and combining answers after session one.
To maintain participants’ motivation and to address their need for time efficiency, each provided answer could be immediately rated for importance and feasibility. In the second study session, we changed this when students received the paper/pencil version and reflected positive experiences with the procedure. Future studies could optimize rating tasks to avoid central tendency bias and inconclusive findings by replacing the five-point Likert scale with an even-point scale, i.e., a scale without a midpoint, which forces participants to choose positively or negatively. Independent of language skills, the majority of students had problems answering the question about frequency of “cycling to school (days/week)” because they cycled every day in the summer but took the bus or train in the winter. These seasonal differences align with previous Norwegian findings that reported large variations in fall (52%), winter (3%), spring (51%) [52
], and in summer (22%) compared to winter (12%) [53
]. Therefore, we highly recommend modifying this question to consider potential seasonal variations in surveys and to take different weather conditions into account when developing an intervention. Finally, the program Ariadne appeared to be prone to error and was perceived to be user-unfriendly, so we recommend that this program be improved for future concept mapping studies.
This study provides insight into the perceptions of girls and boys, mothers, and female and male teachers on what 12- to 15-year-old children and adolescents living in Germany need to cycle daily to school. Between genders, we found more overall similarities than differences in clusters. Students and teachers, independent of gender, and mothers mentioned the need for “bicycle and related equipment,” “way to school,” and “personal factors.” Additionally, independent of gender, students identified “cycle training” and teachers a “storage and changing room,” “financial aspects,” and “information and services” as children and adolescents’ needs. Furthermore, girls identified the need for “social behavior in road traffic,” mothers and female teachers the “role of parents,” and female teachers the “sense of safety.” However, boys and male teachers did not mention these three needs. Only mothers clustered the “role of the school.” Furthermore, we found bias in clusters’ importance and feasibility ratings and could not draw final conclusions. Nevertheless, we hope that the combined perceptions complement each other to support the uptake and long-term maintenance of ACTS by bicycle. Our findings can be used to inform students, mothers, and teachers about their mutual perceptions and can help researchers develop school-based interventions to promote daily cycling to school.