With only 2% of children in England cycling to school – less than the 3% of adults regularly cycling to work – does work need to be done on planning provision for cyclists?
With buses, white vans and Chelsea tractors remaining prevalent across commuter hours - and the school run - it’s no wonder these figures are so low. Cycling environments are pretty hostile wherever you may live but especially in cities and large towns; yet planning for school cycling barely gets a mention.
For many years’ children have been taught cycling skills, via the national Bikeability programme (cycling proficiency for those of a certain age!), but little is done to ensure they have somewhere to ride.
During the school run the roads are often gridlocked, with drivers parked illegally - on double yellows or even on the pavement – whilst parents endeavour to drop their children off to get an education. Transport planning has been focused on traffic heading to work rather than children’s ability to cycle to school (which would have more effect than just reducing the school run traffic – think well-being both mental and physical).
Getting this on the mainstream transport planning agenda will require leadership and funding (necessary to improve the 2%) but data and planning tools also have their part to play. We aren’t currently aware of how many children would cycle to school or which areas would have the greatest potential for cycle routes.
In terms of data, there is the state-funded Propensity to Cycle Tool (PCT) and based on analysis from the National School Census in 2011 (which included all state primary and secondary schools in England) if children in England cycled to school as much as Dutch children, more than two in five children would be biking to school.
Using data from the Dutch travel survey, around a third of Dutch primary school children might cycle 2-3km to school, but the drop off rate is significant (one in nine) when the distance rises to 4km. However, even mirroring these numbers, would mean a 22-fold increase from the current levels.
If you look at Cambridge, one of the best performing areas, the numbers would rise from 30% to 53%. If we could match the Dutch model, we could see at least 16% of trips to school cycled – even in more rural or undulating locations.
Using the PCT to map cycling routes to schools, some roads could see over 500 or even 1,000 or more children pedalling along them and safety should be paramount. By prioritising children over cars, creating so called “school streets” whereby car access is restricted at school times will mean quieter streets for cycling (and walking, playing and socialising too!) without fear of traffic injury.
In Enfield, Kingston, and Waltham Forest they are running schemes whereby some streets are closed to through motor traffic. When you take traffic out of the equation, so called “rat runs” can become play areas or provide bike parking, and results are looking promising – there has already been an increase in walking and cycling in these areas.
The PCT shows that if we delivered the potential possible, physical activity among pupils would see an increase of 57% and carbon emissions would reduce by 81 kilotonnes per year.
There’s a long way to go before cycling to school is the norm but the benefits could be a great motivator. Improved health and wellbeing, less cars on the road, greater child (and parental) mobility and independence.
We need to see a shift in mindset, and priorities. Moving the focus from car-convenience to children’s health would be a start. The initial evidence is there (helped by the PCT data) so now we need to encourage local policymakers to plan for, and prioritise, child cycling for the good of us all.