Regular physical activity is important from an early age to promote good physical and mental health and the school journey is an important opportunity to establish this behaviour. This is what we believe needs to be done to normalise walking, cycling and scooting to school.
This policy position was published by Sustrans in December 2016.
- Regular physical activity is important from an early age to promote good physical and mental health, especially given the rising obesity levels in children.
- The school journey is an important opportunity to establish regular physical activity for children by encouraging, and making it possible, for children to walk, cycle or scoot to school.
- If we are to normalise walking, cycling and scooting to school we need to incorporate active travel within schools’ curricula and wider culture, including on-road cycle training; build safe cycling and walking infrastructure for all local school journeys; and support wider public transport options.
Despite most children wanting to walk or cycle to school, and largely living near enough to do so the proportion of children walking and cycling to school has been declining since 1995, with the number being driven to primary school increasing each year. Now as many as one in four cars on the road during the morning peak are on the school run.
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. Enabling children to travel actively – particularly through improved infrastructure - reduces congestion and actually increases their road safety awareness, thus improving road safety. It will also improve air quality in our towns and cities with a positive impact on climate change.
This is particularly important when physical inactivity poses a serious and growing danger to our society with obesity levels rising.  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 also helps a child’s mental health.  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.
Children in the UK now lag far behind their peers in other nations for active travel. Only around 2-3% of UK children cycle to school compared to 49% of all Dutch primary school children.
What we think
Build safe infrastructure to enable walking and cycling to school
Providing safe, direct and high quality routes and networks, especially segregated cycle paths would encourage more journeys by bike and foot. Introducing default national 20mph speed limits would make children’s (indeed all) journeys safer.
Evidence shows that improving walking and cycling infrastructure has been highly effective in increasing active travel journeys to school (and for other local journeys) and has improved safety and perceptions of safety of the school journey. Sustrans’ 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. Department for Transport (DfT) analysis shows that such investment offers extremely high value for money, returning at least £10 (including congestion, physical activity, and safety benefits) for every £1 invested.
Ensure Active Travel is embedded within formal education curricula and wider school culture
Promoting and teaching about walking and cycling in a school setting is a vital means of establishing active travel habits for life among children. This should be part of national curricula across the UK and can be achieved through both formal teaching and informally through the school’s culture.
The Education Act 2006 (which applies to England only) states that all local authorities must promote sustainable travel to schools. We want to see sustainable transport taught not just promoted within schools. We’d like this legislation to have more teeth and dedicated funding, with local authorities being held to account on how they are delivering on this. School travel as a topic can help in the delivery of a variety of subjects from Geography and English to PE and PSHE. We propose schools use a tool called ‘The Learning Journey’ which introduces knowledge and skills that will develop lifelong active travel habits in young people.
The informal curriculum and wider school culture can also have a significant impact on active travel habits. For example, dedicated Active Travel champions among school staff to encourage walking, cycling and scooting has been proven to reduce the number of pupils who are driven to school. Active travel can be promoted through programmes, which develop pupils’ skills and confidence to increase active travel, or through other classroom activities.
There should be greater emphasis on examining the level of physical activity taken in schools and having a standard measurement of active travel to school. For example, in England Ofsted is introducing a voluntary Healthy Schools Standard to test physical activity as part of school inspections. We would like active travel to be included in physical activity assessments.
Provide on-road cycle training for all school-children
All 9 & 10-year-old children should be offered on-road cycle training in school or community settings. This would give them the skills and confidence to navigate our road networks and give parents peace of mind to allow them the independence. Offering cycle training to parents and teachers would also bolster their confidence in active travel and provide role models for pupils.
Support public transport options
As a more efficient use of road space, buses can help reduce congestion around schools and improve air quality. This is an especially important means of sustainable transport for post-primary pupils or children from rural areas who tend to live further from school. This can be an active travel journey if combined with walking/scooting or cycling to and from a bus stop. Greater provision of bus services would help to encourage bus use in areas where being driven by car remains persistently high.
1] Sustrans (2010/11) Bike It hands-up survey and follow-up survey
 43% of school-children live less than one mile from primary school
 Department for Transport (2014) National Travel Survey 2014. (England)
 Ibid. One in five cars in Northern Ireland
 Department for Transport (2014) National Travel Survey 2014. (England)
 Paskins, J. (2005) Investigating the effects of a car culture on a child’s spatial skills. Paper presented at the Walk21 Conference, held in Zurich Switzerland, 22-23 September 2006
 Department for Children, Schools and Families (2010) Climate change and schools: A carbon management strategy for the school sector.
 Foresight (2007) Tackling Obesities: Future Choices - Foresight Project
 Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (2016)
 NHS Digital (2013) Health Survey for England
 S. Jay Olshansky, Ph.D. et al. (2005) A Potential Decline in Life Expectancy in the United States in the 21st Century. The New England Journal of Medicine
 British Heart Foundation (2007) Healthy Schools: Physical Activity Booklet A
 World Health Organization (2010) Global Recommendations on Physical Activity for Health.
 Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES - 2012) Evaluation of Sustrans' sustainable transport infrastructure work surrounding schools
 Aldred, R. (2015) Adults’ attitudes towards child cycling: a study of the impact of infrastructure. European Journal of Transport and Infrastructure Research
 20's Plenty for us, Wide area 20MPH limits help children and families
 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
 Sustrans (2016) The Learning Journey
 Sustrans (2015) Sustrans Annual Monitoring Report, Active School Travel Programme for N.Ireland,
 Ofsted (2015) Changes to education inspection from September 2015
 In Northern Ireland Sustrans’ Active School Travel Programme has been running for three years and has been extended by government for a further five years until 2021. Surveys from the programme show that it gave parents more confidence and peace of mind to let their children walk and cycle to school. For example, parents’ concern about distance fell from 68% to 43%; and concern about busy roads fell from 57% of parents to 35%.
 Living Streets (2008) Backseat Children: how our car-dependent culture compromises safety on our streets
 Campaign for Better Transport (2016) ‘Cuts to school transport generate 100m extra car journeys a year’