Rachel White is Senior Policy and Political Advisor at Sustrans.  She writes here about the importance of walking and cycling to school.  This article was first published in the latest edition [Vol 121] of NAEE’s journal Environmental Education, which is freely available to members.

Not every parent and carer is able to walk or cycle with their child to school, but many could who currently aren’t, and the potential benefits could have a huge impact on children’s health.  Nearly a third (31%) of children aged 2–15 are overweight or obese in the UK [1] and as many as 42% of children get less than half the recommended hour of physical activity a day [2].  Kids today simply aren’t getting enough exercise and this is compounded by the proportion of children walking and cycling to school having declined since 1995 in England [3].  Meanwhile, the dominance of motor vehicles continues to grow, with as many as one in four cars on the road during the morning peak being on the school run [ 4].  In addition, an investigation [5] in 2017 by the Guardian and Greenpeace found that over 2,000 nurseries and schools are in areas with harmful levels of nitrogen dioxide, above the EU legal limit; the primary cause is car exhausts.  This is worrying as children’s lungs are still developing so they are most susceptible to toxic particulates, as shown by the recent link of a child’s tragic death to air pollution.

There are two inter-related issues here – one is too many cars on the road around schools, which impacts the second – the low number of children walking and cycling.  The dominance of cars on the school run causes road safety fears amongst parents and carers.  This in turn prevents them from allowing their children to walk and cycle to school, and contributes to an unhealthy environment.  It is clear that we need fewer cars on our roads to reduce safety fears and improve the quality of the air we breathe.  We also need those journeys to be converted into more children walking and cycling.  Not only is it a great way to help children achieve the recommended hour of physical activity a day, but has also been found to help prepare children for the school day by waking them up and making them more eager to learn.  Walking and cycling also brings children into better contact with their natural environment rather than being trapped in a car; and it embeds a physically active lifestyle from a young age which is something they are likely to carry into adulthood

So how can we encourage more children to walk and cycle to school?  We first need the right infrastructure in place.  Road safety is a key concern for many families so we need to create as many traffic-free routes to school as possible.  Sustrans is custodian of the National Cycle Network which is 16,000 miles long and runs across the whole of the UK. Currently 56% of journeys on the Network are taken for functional reasons, such as travelling to work and school and large sections are already traffic-free.  Sustrans has the ambition to make the whole network traffic-free or on quiet, low traffic roads which will help give families the confidence to walk or cycle the school run.

In some cases it’s not possible to create traffic-free routes direct to school, particularly in large towns and cities.  When this is the case we need to enable more schools to stop or reduce motor traffic outside of the school gates.  One way of doing this is through ‘School Streets’ whereby the roads outside a school are closed for drop-off and pick up, which opens the streets back up to families and improves air quality.  Edinburgh and Hackney have trialled this already with great results.  In Edinburgh, nine schools participated in a pilot of school streets.  As a result, two thirds of parents and residents agree that streets with vehicle restrictions felt safer during operating times.  The project also identified air quality improvements, with associated reductions in nitrogen oxides on all tested closed streets and most surrounding roads.  Filtered permeability whereby motor traffic is restricted on streets outside schools is another way to improve road safety and increase the numbers of families walking and cycling.  This can be done through restricting the flow of motor traffic so it can only go in one direction or though light touch measures, such as planters which narrow the road to motor traffic and reduce the speed of vehicles.

Whilst infrastructure is vital, there needs to be the behaviour change programmes that work alongside it, so that children and their carers are confident on a bike.  This is why Sustrans would like to see active travel embedded into the formal education curricula and wider school culture.  It is clear that when it comes to getting more children to walk and cycle the school journey there is no ‘one size fits all approach’ but when the majority of families live within a walkable or cycleable distance to the school grounds, more needs to be done to create streets that work for people and create spaces where children can get about actively in safety.
[1] Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (2016) rcpch.ac.uk/obesity

[2] NHS Digital (2013) Health Survey for England content.digital.nhs.uk/catalogue/PUB16076

[3] Department for Transport (2014) National Travel Survey 2014. (England) tinyurl.com/y6rcppb7

[4] tinyurl.com/y4nt6jck

[5] tinyurl.com/lvh586n

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