Championing Active Travel to School

Amy Foster is a primary teacher in Southwark in south London. She has worked championing active travel both within her school and across its wider local schools network, through the Dulwich and Herne Hill Safe Routes to School forum, which she chaired for 18 months.  Amy is one of Southwark’s ‘Healthy Schools Champions’ and a trustee for the London Cycling Campaign.​

In only a few weeks the UK’s schools will start their summer break and with it comes the inevitable decrease in rush hour traffic volumes.

It’s estimated that one in five vehicles on the road during the morning peak are on the ‘school run’.  The recent Global Action Plan report on the negative costs of vehicle emissions concluded that ‘swapping 1 in 4 car journeys in urban areas for walking or cycling could save over £1.1 billion in health damage costs per year.’ So it makes sense that tackling schools related traffic will be a key to achieving this saving.

Unfortunately, the reality is rather more complex. Managing the school drop off and pick up around a working day is hugely challenging for many parents. The quickest, most convenient, most reliable travel option is chosen in order to manage the multiple journeys of the day which are often ‘daisy chained’ together.   And for many of us, this option remains the car.

Clearly, cycling represents door to door, quick, convenient travel and the fact that e-assist cargo bikes and tandems are becoming more widely available means that cycling with multiple children whilst carrying various bits of school kit is much easier than in once was. However, few families will invest in what remain daunting up-front costs if they do not feel comfortable and safe enough to use such an expensive cycle regularly.

And this is the crux of the issue; how safe we feel on our roads.

The active charity Sustrans recently published a report entitled ‘Women: reducing the Gender Gap’ highlighting how few women in the UK cycle, with the lack of protected cycle tracks being cited as a key barrier. We already know that infrastructure is the key if we wish to see more children walking and cycling to school and listening to the views expressed in the Sustrans report is a crucial first step, given female carers are three times more likely than male carers to do the school run.

Furthermore, a  2015 study ‘Adults attitudes towards child cycling published by Dr Rachel Aldred of The University of Westminster further supports the Sustrans data in highlighting that adults only feel comfortable choosing routes that ‘substantially separate people cycling from motor traffic’ when travelling cycling with children.

The issue could be the lack of gender equality in our highways teams: according to research from the Road Danger Reduction Forum, 91% of heads of transport in UK local authorities are male. Women are expressing strong opinions about the kind of cycling infrastructure they prefer, yet are their voices heard clearly enough in the decision making process?

Being able to walk or cycle to school independently would not only make parents’ lives easier but is hugely beneficial for children’s wellbeing. Multiple studies have shown the benefit active travel can have on children’s academic attainment and behaviour for learning.  Equally, setting up healthy travel habits in childhood and adolescence leads to healthier adult travel habits.  Given physical inactivity now contributes to as many premature deaths globally as smoking, this is absolutely something we should all be striving for.

Yet with the numbers of children being killed on our roads walking and cycling actually increasing, there is little chance that we will see a radical decrease in the numbers of children being driven to school in the UK, unless we start to make quite radical changes to the way we design our roads and unless we make these changes, it will continue to be our most deprived communities that are most affected by the harm motorised traffic causes. As the National Education Union (who recently collaborated with the British Lung Foundation on an air quality advice guide for schools) confirms, ‘more than 85% of schools most affected by poor air quality have pupils from catchments more deprived than the UK average’, and these same communities are also up to 6 times more likely to see their children killed walking or cycling to school than our least deprived.

As we can all acknowledge, the schools serving our most deprived resources face myriad challenges. Their staff, parents and  local communities may lack the human capital to challenge these inequalities. It should not be their responsibility to campaign for safer roads and cleaner air; it must be national policy, with local and central funding made available for safe walking and cycling routes to school. And until it is, we must continue the work to share this message with our decision makers, across our communities.

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