Encouraging an active travel school-run

Research shows that 27 per cent of UK schools are in high pollution areas, with the school run contributing considerably. To combat this, schools should encourage an active, safe, and green commute to school, writes Chris Bennett, head of behaviour change and engagement at Sustrans

Travelling actively to school can be a win-win situation for the whole school community, as walking, wheeling, scooting or cycling can be quality time between parents and children, with pupils arriving more relaxed and ready to learn.
In contrast, although tempting and the easy option at times, travelling to school by car can be a time of stress and discomfort, at premium expense and with terrible consequences to the air quality and environment around the school.
Simply put; it doesn’t work. Instead, the positives of adopting a green commute to school must be prioritised as a healthier and cheaper option that benefits all aspects of the school experience.

The situation

Transport is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the UK, and motor vehicle use is the greatest source of emissions. This is hugely damaging to all, but particularly for children.
Research shows that 27 per cent of UK schools are in high pollution areas, with the school run contributing considerably. The impact of this is already tragic, such as in the case of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, for whom the factor of air pollution “made a material contribution” to her death, according to the coroner presiding over the inquest into her death.
Though legislative action, such as Ella’s Law (enacted following the inquest), is fundamental, every act of change away from carbon transport is a positive step.
Active travel should be the natural first choice for all shorter trips. Fortunately, making the change from car to walking or cycling can be very simple.
Schools are the basis of instilling integral life-lessons for long lasting behaviour change, and so what efforts are made here are extremely beneficial to the movement.

What are the facts?

1.3 miles is the average distance to primary school. Three miles is the average distance to secondary school. Fifty-seven per cent of primary age pupils live within one mile of their school, and 73 per cent live within two miles, whilst 27 per cent of secondary age pupils live within one mile of school and 52 per cent live within two miles.
Essentially, most pupils and students live close enough to walk or cycle to school.
Using the car is the only option for some. Whilst recognising our different needs, there is opportunity for us to reduce the number of unnecessary short journeys by car.
Sustrans schools officers work within schools, creating a culture of active travel for the whole community through collaborative programmes for the benefit of teachers, pupils and parents.
The impact of this is considerable. Our Active School Travel Programme in Northern Ireland found that by the end of the 2020-21 academic year children travelling actively to participating schools increased from 31 per cent to 43 per cent, while the number of pupils travelling by car to school fell from 61 per cent to 50 per cent. There was also a 15 per cent increase in children completing one hour of physical activity 60 minutes each day.

What can be done?

All schools should have a School Travel Plan. This starts with an understanding of how children currently travel to school, and sets out the actions the school will deliver to increase active travel. Pupils should be directly involved in developing this plan, to encourage collaborative enthusiasm.
Methods proven to be effective in encouraging families into an active travel school run, include rewards points systems, measurable inter-class challenges, free fruit/healthy snacks for green commuters, and awarding of celebration achievements such as certificates.
Awareness weeks and competitions, such as Bike to School Week and the Big Walk and Wheel bring a united ethos to the challenge as parents, pupils and teachers walk, cycle, wheel, or scoot to school. “Active Travel Day/Week”, organised by the school for a selected car-free date, could include pupil-designed posters about the event, which can also be done with parental involvement, and display boards through the school as a reminder.
Everyone taking part will experience the benefits of travelling actively – and this is a vital lesson at a crucial time in developing positive habits for future journeys.
‘Walking Buses’ and ‘Cycling Buses’, in which parents and pupils travel as groups to school, have proved effective in encouraging families to walk or cycle.
A critical step to encourage this behaviour change will be improving school storage areas for bikes and scooters to ensure they are easily accessible for owners, safe, secure, and covered.

Promoting the power of change

It is particularly important to communicate to new pupils and parents, that the school supports active travel and commuting by car is discouraged, to create a culture and habit of active travel in the school from as soon as pupils start.
Identifying a suitable Park-and-Stride location, no more than five to 10-minutes’ walk from the school, enables parents to park and walk the rest of the journey – but this must be highlighted and encouraged to be a success.
Increasing knowledge of safe routes and how to use them is essential to making walking and cycling the primary mode of transport for the school run. Schools can distribute regular newsletters to highlight safe and reasonable routes for parents, with each communication also highlighting the importance and benefit of active travel.

School Streets

‘School Streets’ are simple measures restricting through-traffic on roads outside schools for 30-to-60 minutes at either end of the school day. Emergency vehicles, residents and blue badge holders of course retain access.
These fantastic schemes give parents the confidence for their children to enjoy the freedom of a safe road in clean air, whilst local communities socialise.
Schools must work closely with local authorities and the neighbourhood community in developing and delivering School Streets.
A Sustrans-commissioned survey in 2019 found nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) of teachers would support car-free roads outside schools during drop-off and pickup times. During Sustrans School Streets as part of the Big Pedal 2019, a survey found that 90 per cent of parents and residents would support a street closure regularly outside the school. New evidence from Sustrans finds across School Streets schemes, there has been no significant traffic displacement to surrounding streets.
The benefits – health, wealth and community happiness

Physical inactivity is devastating to our health but by travelling actively to school, children can avoid the associated risks, and are also shown what difference they can make.
Many teachers report that a pupil’s ability to concentrate and learn is improved after walking, wheeling or cycling to school; often arriving to lessons more engaged and ready for the day.
The car is now, especially amid the cost of fuel and living crisis, an unacceptable means of travel for millions across the UK. The support that schools can provide for them, not only encourages their switch to active travel, but can be of considerable benefit to the household purse and wellbeing.
Central experiences to childhood development come from movement, and for many the key pillars of this are walking, wheeling and cycling, especially to school; forging memories and long-lasting relationships.

Expectations of future generations

Sustrans recently polled 1,305 pupils aged from six-to-15 across the UK for their thoughts on the environment, climate crisis and their school’s air quality. Seventy-one per cent said they were worried, while 62 per cent felt that adults were not doing enough about climate change. And just over half felt their concerns are not taken seriously by adults.
Our children are concerned and they are looking to their parents and teachers, as well as the Government and organisations like Sustrans to lead the way and make the difference for them. Each thing that we do to make a change towards active travel is worth doing, for the planet and for those that will be the adults someday.
Luckily for us all, we have school staff and teachers instilling the good habits and knowledge that will make the difference we all need.
There is no greater lesson than an example being set. Don’t tell children what must be done – show them. For this, start where the buck stops – leadership. When the Headteacher walks or cycles to school; parents, teachers and pupils will follow that example.