Active travel and traffic danger: the school run catch 22
As 100,000 kids take to the streets on the day of Brake's Giant Walk, Brake's campaigns officer Ed Morrow examines why it's so important to get more children walking and cycling to school - and why we are currently failing to do so.
Almost half of UK primary school children are driven to school. That's a problem. In the public health and sustainable travel field, we all know that's a problem. And it's not a problem for ideological reasons. It's a problem for very practical, real, urgent reasons.
Three in 10 children in England aged two to 15 are now overweight or obese, and the figures are similar across the UK. The World Health Organisation recently warned three quarters of men and two thirds of women in the UK will be overweight in 15 years' time if lifestyles do not change. Britain is teetering on the precipice of an obesity epidemic that could deliver the final knock-out blow to our faltering NHS.
We've all heard the obesity doom-mongering many times before, but what to do about it? Every public health initiative aimed at getting people to eat well and exercise seems doomed to failure. The only way many of us will live healthier lives is if we do so without realising it – if it is built into our everyday routine. The remedy for this crisis is to be found not in the gym, nor the organic food store, but on the streets.
Our parents' generation got much of the exercise they needed to be healthy simply by moving from place to place not encased in a wheeled metal box. And they started early – in 1971, 80% of seven to eight year olds walked to school independently. Active travel became habitual. That's why getting more kids walking and cycling as part of their everyday routine is vital, and why 100,000 children across the UK are kick-starting a love of walking by taking part in Brake's Giant Walk today.
However, when it comes to letting their own children walk and cycle to school, parents today are in a quandary. Only a quarter of them think the route between their home and their school is safe enough for their children to walk or cycle unsupervised. The reason: traffic danger. Road safety concerns top the list of factors stopping parents letting their kids walk or cycle, with 42% citing high volumes of fast traffic.
At the same time, the finding that only a quarter of parents put the decision to drive their kids down to distance or time, and only one in 12 to convenience, leaves the argument that it just isn't practical for most children to walk or cycle to school dead in the water.
However – and here's the catch 22 – by attempting to protect their children from unsafe roads by driving them to school, parents are contributing to the problem. The mere fact of so many vehicles trying to cram onto the same roads at the same time is enough to create more congestion and more traffic danger. The problem gets worse when the parents in question don't drive responsibly – one in eight surveyed by Brake admitted talking on a mobile phone or speeding on the school run.
Walking or cycling in this scenario takes courage, and letting your children do so might even be considered negligent. We can't insist parents take a leap of faith, so what's to be done? If we again listen to the parents themselves, more segregated walking and cycling routes and safe crossing points would help – they ask nobody to put themselves in harm's way.
If we can get more people walking and cycling – to school, work and play – on segregated, protected routes, then it necessarily reduces the burden of cars on the road. Maybe then, with the roads more clear – and limited to 20mph – we could reclaim them for all types of user to share, and we'd find we no longer needed quite so many segregated routes after all.
Brake campaigns for a 20mph urban default through the GO 20 campaign and backs a long-term walking and cycling investment strategy as part of the Infrastructure Bill.
A key issue is parking enforcement near schools. At my daughters primary school they are more concerned with ticketing cars that have overstayed in paid parking spaces than enforcing the law on double-yellow and pavement parking or on stopping on zigzags at restricted hours. This is not to mention cars parking on dropped kerbs at junction corners blocking the walk to school routes. Until such time as there is a safe zone around school entrances and the local area has random enforcement of dangerous parking/driving - with parents unable to wriggle out of contraventions - then nothing will improve. I personally think yellow boxing near all school entrances should be done - its done in many places to improve traffic flow, why not to improve safety for children. My daughter could walk to school, but the last 20m are the most dangerous. And we're not even talking about the idiots who ignore that children use a puffin crossing and have to take their lives in their hands to avoid phone wielding speeding idiots that don't look
This is a problem that will take a lot of different groups to help solve, each has a part to play. maybe parents/guardians park a little further away and encourage walking, other driver/riders being aware that not only is the problem just outside a school but can be up to 1 or 2 kilometres as children are walking/cycling to and from school. Some people consider the parking outside schools to be inconsiderate (or illegal) but it slows the traffic down. I think that segregated, protected routes would go a long way to helping with this issue.
It's worth considering that putting in provision for active transport, not simply supporting wishful thinking campaigns that have no effect whatever, have been proven to make a difference.
Kids in the Netherlands have the highest rates of active transport among European kids: they cycle a lot.
Up to 49% of Dutch primary schoolchildren go to school by bike. In the UK, only 2% do. As many as 47% of UK kids aged 5-10 walk to school, however a growing proportion - now around 44% - are driven there every day.
And it's not just to school Dutch kids travel by bike. Because they can easily access safe, protected bike paths, they're more likely to use their bikes for all their local trips. Added together, that translates into a lot of active transport - transport of a kind UK kids just don't have access to because we have very little in the way of protected space for cycling.
It also means Dutch kids have a much higher degree of independence than those in the UK. While Dutch kids are off on their bikes, British kids are moping around bored waiting for an adult to drive them somewhere.
Is more independence good for kids? In its child well-being surveys Unicef regularly ranks Dutch kids at the top. Does it benefit adults? The motor vehicular school run and the road danger, pollution and congestion it causes, not to mention the wasted time, is virtually unknown in the Netherlands.
And the other benefits? Without knowing anything about the comparative diets, it's true that Dutch kids are less obese than their UK counterparts.
Percentage of schoolchildren aged 7-11 obese or overweight
The Dutch rate is among the lowest in Europe, the English rate among the highest.
Percentage of schoolchildren aged 13-17 obese or overweight
Again the Dutch rate is among the lowest in Europe, the English rate among the highest. The active transport figures are similar to those from Denmark, which also sees much lower childhood obesity rates than the UK.