I look back fondly on my journey to school in the 1980s. I had a steep walk up a hill to the bus stop and most mornings it seemed to be raining. But there was a rather exotic prize at the top of the hill. Tina, the elephant!
No, I didn’t grow up in India or Africa. Tina was the huge elephant that lurched around her enclosure close to the Antrim Road in Belfast’s Bellevue Zoo. On a good day she even waved her trunk at my three sisters and me as we waited for the school bus. Years later a neighbour recalled how she would watch us from her window traipsing up and down the hill to school each day: “You were the Madden ducklings – like steps and stairs in height.” Indeed my oldest sister was just 10 when she would have taken responsibility to walk us all to the bus stop.
That was three decades ago, but sadly despite most children wanting to walk or cycle to school, and largely living near enough to do so, the proportion of children getting to school by walking or cycling has been in decline. In fact since 1995 the number of children being driven to primary school has been steadily increasing each year. Now as many as one in four cars on the road during the morning peak are on the school run.
Safe routes to school
Traffic danger is the most common reason cited by parents for not allowing their children to walk or cycle to school but, ironically, by driving our children to school we contribute to traffic, thus reducing children’s safety.
Back in the 1980s my parents too were concerned about road safety. My mum, a devout Catholic, would have prayed with us before we left the house each morning. I vividly remember the mantra: “Sacred Heart of Jesus watch over us, going to school, in school and coming home.” She repeated this every morning followed by “Have you brushed your teeth? Have you got a tissue?” My mum was as protective as any mother today, yet she trusted us to get to the bus stop and back. There may have been less traffic on the roads but it’s all relative. To us, then, there was a lot of traffic. The Antrim Road was and remains a busy arterial route into the city. One godsend was that we didn’t have to cross any major junctions and for most of our walk there were pavements.
“ Unsafe routes to school is a major deterrent to parents allowing their children to walk or cycle. ”
We know that unsafe routes to school is a major deterrent to parents allowing their children to walk or cycle. The Bike Life report for Belfast in 2015 found that only 23% of people believe that safety for children riding a bike in the city is good or very good and it is a similar story elsewhere in the UK.
Last year I met a mother whose daughters attend a primary school (view film clip) not far from my own in north Belfast. She lives on the same street as the actual school but is so concerned about the hazard of cars mounting the pavement that she accompanies her two daughters the few hundred metres to school each day. Many of these cars are other parents parking as they leave their loved ones off to school. This scenario sums up the vicious circle of cars dominating the school run and all its adverse consequences. Meanwhile, the teachers, who have enough work to do in school, are forced to double-job as parking attendants outside the school-gates.
Enabling children to walk or cycle to school reduces congestion, improves safety around the school gates and increases their road safety awareness. Less cars on the school run will also improve air quality in our towns and cities with a positive impact on climate change. In 2016 as part of our Big Pedal competition schools across the UK recorded over one million journeys by bike and scooter in just two weeks. Just think if this was the norm for every day of the school calendar how much less traffic would be on our roads.
However, we have to build the infrastructure to provide safe routes to school and give parents the confidence to allow their children to travel by themselves. Our work to transform local walking and cycling routes has increased annual usage by children by 117%, and delivered a 151% increase in children using the routes to get to school.
Active travel helps tackle obesity
Yet while parents worry about road safety, there is another threat to children and the quality of their lives – obesity. Nearly a third (31%) of children aged 2–15 are overweight or obese in the UK. As many as 42% of children get less than half the recommended hour of physical activity a day. As a result, this generation of children may be the first generation to have a life expectancy lower than their parents. Active travel through walking and cycling can help reverse this trend and support mental wellbeing. Teachers find that pupils who walk and cycle arrive at school more relaxed, alert and ready to start the day than those who travel by car.
Of course the habits we begin in childhood are more likely to continue throughout life so embedding active travel in school curricula and our wider culture is vital. As the school term begins Sustrans will keep working to ensure that future generations walk or cycle to school and don’t have to rely on divine intervention to get them there safely.
P.S. Tina the elephant celebrated her 50th birthday a couple of years ago and is still waving to school-kids at Belfast’s zoo.
P.P.S. Sadly Tina passed away aged 54 on 5 November 2017. RIP
 CLES (2012) Evaluation of Sustrans sustainable transport infrastructure work. Sustrans (2010) Review of the Impact of Interventions on School Travel. Sustrans/Cycling England/DfT (2006) Links to Schools; Sustrans (2014) Linking Communities programme evaluation