The old road safety advert called for “Clunk Click”, the sound of putting on a seat belt in a car. Now clinicians and traffic experts demand safe routes to walk or bike to school.
Claiming that the “windscreen perspective” dominates, where governments and planners view the world quite literally from inside cars, has allowed car travel to become the default choice according to the authors. One of them, Dr Paul Kelly, says “The narrative needs to change; we need investment in safe and enjoyable spaces for walking and cycling to school. And convenient and affordable public transport options” in the article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
This view is backed up by Professor Chris Oliver, the lead author, who is a recently retired orthopaedic surgeon and Honorary Professor in Physical Activity for Health at the University of Edinburgh: “We’d like to see at least 10% of governments transport budget spent on Active Travel in all countries to help develop high quality walking and cycling infrastructure. All children need safe routes to walk or bike to school.”
The European Cyclists Federation agrees. Policy officer Dr Randy Rzewnicki comments “We’ve been hearing more and more calls for less and less traffic. The World Health Organisation has not been shy about saying that reductions in private motorized transport are an essential feature of making cities healthier. Norway’s latest transport plan says that there can be no increase in car traffic.”
“Now these prominent researchers say that “reducing car use, particularly in urban areas” is essential,” said Rzewnicki. “They note that Scotland had doubled its active travel commitment to £80 billion per year. Together with the 30 km/h law rolled out last year in Edinburgh, these are good moves. But there and across Europe, more needs to be done.”
Parents too worried about traffic to let children walk or bike to school.
“Children in the UK are not active enough”, said Paul Kelly, Researcher and lecturer at University of Edinburgh. “On top of this, walking and cycling to school have been declining for 50 years. Children are therefore missing out on physical, mental and social health benefits. And setting harmful habits and behaviours for adulthood. This can in large part be explained by too much focus and investment on cars and roads.”
The average length of a school journey has nearly doubled since the 1980s to just under 4 miles in 2013. But the age at which parents will allow their children to go to school by themselves has been steadily creeping up amid fears about road safety.
So they drive their children instead of letting them walk or bike to school. But what is often not recognised is just how much air pollution children travelling by car are exposed to inside the vehicle under urban driving conditions, the authors point out.
Encouraging independent travel – walking or riding a bike to school – not only helps shed the pounds, but has knock-on social and mental health benefits, and it breaks the cycle of normalising car travel for future generations, they say.
They admit there is no single solution, but safe routes to walk or bike to school are needed. The UK could adopt the school travel initiatives pioneered by Germany, The Netherlands, and Denmark, they suggest.
And it could plough more cash into the Sustainable Travel Towns programme, already implemented in some parts of the UK. This programme of town-wide measures, which aims to curb car use, has helped boost economic growth, cut carbon emissions and promote quality of life in those areas where it has been adopted, the authors point out.
In an accompanying letter, sent to all four UK transport ministers—Chris Grayling (England); Humza Yousaf (Scotland); Ken Skates (Wales); and Karan Bradley (Northern Ireland) – the authors point to significant savings to the NHS, reductions in pollution levels, and ingraining sustainable travel behaviours among future generations if walking or riding a bike to school were to be prioritised.
“The rhetoric of improving the environment in favour of children’s active travel has been visible for at least two decades, but tangible changes have largely been absent from transport planning,” they write.
“We suggest the time is right to redress the imbalance and give back to today’s children many of the freedoms that older adults recall and benefited from in terms of the levels of independent mobility,” they conclude.