23 Oct 2019 Guest Blog: Why our school streets are a health issue
In our latest guest blog, we hear from Director of Sustrans in the North of England, Rosslyn Colderly to find out more about their recent ‘Bike to School Week’ initiative to encourage more children to get moving on the school run.
Last month thousands of children across the UK made a special effort to get on their bikes and travel actively to school for Sustrans’ Bike to School Week. Our social media was flooded with healthy and smiley photos of children arriving at school feeling alert and relaxed, ready for the school day.
We’re delighted that so many families took part in the event, which ran from 23-27 September, but wouldn’t it be amazing if this was the norm?
Sustrans works with schools across the UK to help more children walk, cycle or scoot their everyday journeys. We know that children love the freedom of travelling under their own steam and this has a significant impact on their physical and mental health. Yet the reality is that parents are too frightened about road safety to allow their children this simple pleasure. Just 2% of children in the UK cycle to school, compared to nearly half of pupils in the Netherlands. Around 45% of British parents drop off their kids in the car, which creates a congested, polluted and dangerous environment around the school gate for the remaining families, and a massive disincentive to travel by bicycle or even on foot.
Active travel is a great way to integrate exercise into a child’s (and an adult’s) daily life, particularly for families who don’t have the time or money to take their children to classes and outdoor activities. Cycling allows children to travel further, and can reduce travel costs as it is often as quick as the bus.
We worked with Bradford District Council’s Public Health to develop a programme of cycling and walking for 16 schools with high levels of obesity and physical inactivity. The City has some of the highest levels of childhood obesity in the UK, with around a fifth of Year 6 pupils classified as obese. Over 4000 children joined activities and the amount of pupils cycling to school doubled. In York we helped inspire three quarters of children in 15 schools to walk or cycle regularly to school, boosting activity levels and helping to tackle the city’s problems with air pollution and traffic congestion.
Our officers work with children, teachers and parents to help them find quiet routes to school, through parks, backstreets and, existing traffic-free paths. But in many cases the infrastructure is poor, inconsistent or non-existent, and doesn’t help people to ditch the car.
Imagine the difference we could make to children’s activity levels if there was sustained investment in creating traffic free paths and segregated cycle lanes, in the same way that we invest in our road network? The Government is investing £15 billion in road building by 2020, while just 2% of transport funding goes to ‘active travel’. There is substantial evidence to show that building more roads only creates more traffic congestion, while building a quality walking and cycle network inspires thousands of people to get active and leave their cars at home.
Increasingly parents, residents and teachers are demanding changes on our school streets. In Sustrans’ survey of 954 parents and residents 90% said they supported traffic-free roads outside schools. By changing the design of our streets to focus on people rather than cars we can make it easier for more children to walk and cycle their journeys – and have a healthier start in life.