I first tried to cycle to school when I was fourteen – something I thought would be simple and easy. On my way, I realised how much more visible I was to other kids in the school. My bike, though cheap, was probably the most expensive thing that any students took to school that day, and I was filled with discomfort as I approached the school gates. I was worried I would get picked on for travelling differently, or have my bike stolen during the day. So instead of cycling into the school grounds, I decided to park my bike some streets away, hidden from view. In the end the hassle and the nerves both got the better of me and I didn’t try again.
I’m pleased to say that a couple of years later I started cycling to my sixth form college, where I felt safer storing my bike. Cycling was more normal, I felt less like an outlier, and the college had cycle parking that was safe and secure. Thanks to the confidence built in the years that followed, as an adult my cycling habit has meant I save thousands of pounds on travel costs every single year.
That first abortive attempt at cycling to school highlights just one of the barriers faced by those wanting to cycle. While it’s not always easy to get started, walking and cycling to school and for other journeys opens up a plethora of benefits both to the individual and the community. If you’re still not convinced, let me explain why we should care that young people and their parents feel comfortable walking or cycling to school.
Why we need to enable walking and cycling to school
- It’s great for our health
The poor health of many young Londoners is something we should currently be ashamed of. Four in ten children in London are considered to be overweight or obese – the highest levels of childhood obesity in England. 1 Given that 80% of children are physically active for less than an hour per day in London, this isn’t surprising.
Walking or cycling to school is the easiest and cheapest way to get young people their daily exercise. With 21% of journeys to school in London being made by car, 2 it should be an easy win to enable the remaining journeys to be walked or cycled.
- It helps us learn
In addition to being good for young people’s health, walking or cycling to school can be good for children’s education. Just 20 minutes of walking can improve the academic performance of 9-year olds, particularly their reading achievements. 3 And as teachers and parents know, physical exercise, along with things like good sleeping and eating habits, can help create a calmer atmosphere both in the classroom and at home.
- It builds our independence and saves us money
Children benefit from being able to travel to and from school safely without their parents – they can strengthen coping skills when faced with new situations, and build relationships with their peers and communities. Today, just 25% of primary age school children travel home from school without their parents, down from 86% in 1971. 4
In addition to building life-long skills, walking and cycling is also fun, and effectively free. This means that children do not have the financial burden of transport ticket costs holding them back.
- It cleans our air and protects our climate
A quarter of London traffic at weekday morning peak time is for school drop-off. 5 And with transport now the biggest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK 6 and the biggest contributor to air pollution in schools, 7 enabling a shift from car journeys to walking and cycling journeys to school would make an immediate reduction in these impacts.
We know that air pollution has detrimental impacts on children’s development, particularly in terms of lung capacity and cardiovascular health, so reducing tailpipe emissions around schools is more critical now than ever before.
- It saves us time and tackles congestion.
With car journeys to school occurring at peak hours, the impact on travel times from even minor reduction in congestion are significant. Londoners notice the change to their travel conditions when the school holidays come along: reduced traffic, less noise, less stress. The data backs this up too, with a 15% reduction to traffic resulting in 30% reduction to travel times. 8 This frees up space and speeds up journeys for deliveries, trade workers, and those who need to travel by car.
And all this says nothing of the time savings reaped by children walking and cycling short distances to school in their local communities, often much faster than travelling by car. 9
So how do we enable walking and cycling to school?
With all these benefits, what needs to happen to enable the shift to walking and cycling to school? Here are the top three things that could overcome a range of key barriers.
- Engage staff, parents and students
We need to get the basics right. Parents and schools have a role to play in actions like teaching children to cycle. But other tasks may be harder: how do we ensure every young person has access to a bike? There are wide social and financial barriers preventing this.
Engaging parents is hugely important. Schools and local authorities need to know what journeys people are making, from how far, and with what mode of transport. They also need to understand barriers children face when choosing to walk and cycle to school. Perceptions that form in the home around who can and should walk or cycle influence whether children will choose these modes for their journey to school. While enabling walking may be easier, walking and cycling are both part of the solution, particularly for those covering longer distances.
The TfL STARS programme gives schools a rating on the measures they have undertaken to enable active travel. There is a huge list of measures schools can undertake and the programme helps record and track progress. Engaging in STARS and other programmes such as Sustrans’ Bike It, schools are able to change behaviours and support healthier travel habits. These programmes provide a catalyst for parents and others to reimagine their journeys, and for the community to put pressure on local authorities to make bold improvements to infrastructure.
- Slow the speeds
The second major action we can take is to slow speeds on our roads generally, but particularly around schools. Introducing more 20 mph speed limits can dramatically reduce injuries 10 , but even that is not enough to prevent dangerous driving. Complementary design measures to reduce speed, such as creating slow points, increasing greenery and planting, and extending footpaths into and across roadways, can both physically and visually reinforce the need to drive more slowly 11. Enforcement of the rules among all road users is also key. Countries which enforce the rules of the road have safer roads which enable more people to cycle 12 and walk, including to schools.
- Build safe routes to school
Finally, we need to think about safe routes to schools. Progress is being made in London on the construction of Cycleways, Liveable Neighbourhoods (also called low traffic neighbourhoods) and School Streets. But it is still a very small number of children that have a safe cycling route to school, or a walking route parents would let children use unaccompanied. Parents from one primary school we work with use words such as: “chaotic”, “busy”, and “unsafe”. They explain that “we have to shout to hear each other” and “the pollution can be smelled in the air”. One child from another school we work with explains that “When I walk to a school I don’t feel that safe because all the cars are rushing”.
Contrast this to a school like Bessemer Grange in Southwark, where the street leading to the entrance is calm and inviting to young people. Bollards go up as the school day approaches, not only making the school run safe and pleasant but showing how streets can be used for socialising and physical activity. Bessemer Grange is a School Street – an effective measure to start creating safe, convenient routes to school. We now have 81 School Streets in London 13 , and we’ll need many more come September if we are to support children and families switching away from public transport during the pandemic, as well as achieving safe social distancing at and around school gates.
But School Streets are only part of the solution, and often aren’t appropriate for main roads. Cycleways and filtered (low traffic) neighbourhoods must be designed with journeys to school in mind – linking children with school entrances to transform their daily journeys and create life-long walking and cycling habits. This is why cycleways, filtered neighbourhoods and School Streets are all metrics in the Healthy Streets Scorecard – they all make up the basic infrastructure we need for safe journeys to school.
A new type of school run
Focussing on these three key measures that enable children to walk and cycle will transform the daily journey to school. It’s always been odd that we have called a trip to school in a car the ‘school run’, despite the fact that no physical exercise is involved. Let’s get started now to ensure every child in London is enabled to walk or cycle to school, allowing them to reap the benefits of travelling in an active, healthy, cheap and sustainable way.
- Walking action plan, TfL. Pgs 24, 92↩
- Mode of travel, DfT; NTS9908 Trips to and from school by main mode, region and Rural-Urban Classification: England↩
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Physical Activity May Strengthen Children’s Ability To Pay Attention,
- Children’s independent mobility: a comparative study in England and Germany (1971 – 2010)
By Ben Shaw, Ben Watson, Bjorn Frauendienst, Andreas Redecker, Tim Jones, with Mayer Hillman. Policy Studies Institute↩
- Walking action plan, TfL. Pg 24↩
- 2018 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Provisional Figures. Statistical Release: National Statistics, 28 March 2019. Pgs 6, 11↩
- Demystifying Air Pollution in London. London Councils, January 2018↩
- London congestion charge: what worked, what didn’t, what next
By Nicole Badstuber. The Conversation↩
- When is it quicker to walk, than catch a bus?
By Marcus Mayers and David Bamford. The Conversation↩
- Effect of 20 mph traffic speed zones on road injuries in London, 1986-2006: controlled interrupted time series analysis.
By C. Grundy et al. 2009. BMJ, 339. b4469↩
- 20mph Research Study, Process and Impact Evaluation Technical Report.
By Atkins, AECOM, and Prof Mike Maher (UCL), 2018↩
- Making a city safe enough for travel by bicycle: comparing Inner Melbourne, Amsterdam and Copenhagen.
By Warwick Pattinson. ResearchGate, 2020↩
- Data collected from local authorities as of April 2020↩