Active travel – Why children should walk or ride to school

By LAURIE PATTON | 14 September 2018

Walking, riding or catching public transport to and from school has long been a rite-of-passage for Australian children. However, a range of factors have increasingly seen parents  choosing to drive their offspring.

How old children should be before they no longer require parental supervision, and how far they should be permitted to travel alone or even in groups, is often the subject of hot debate around the barbecue and in the media. Sadly, it’s one of those ‘back in my day’ age indicators – and a symbol of a more cautious and guarded society.

The proportion of Australian children using active transport to travel to or from school has declined by about 40 percent over a generation. Active transport is now the usual mode for less than one in three school children. Fifty-four percent of primary school children in NSW are driven to and from school every day.

The impacts of school drop-off and pick-up are manyfold, including on traffic congestion, road safety, our environment and health. By contrast, an active form of transport to and from school – for example, walking, cycling or riding a scooter – offers an easy way for children to get more movement into their day while establishing healthy habits for a lifetime.

The Heart Foundation considers physical activity a ‘best buy’ for the nation’s health, and in particular, for children’s health. Daily physical activity is essential for children’s physical, social and emotional health and development. Alarmingly though, only one in five school aged children are active enough to meet current Australian physical activity guidelines – a modest 60 minutes per day.

Research shows that children who use active modes to get to or from school are more physically active than those who don’t. They also accumulate more “moderate to vigorous” paced physical activity (great for enhancing overall health), use up more energy and generally have better fitness than their ‘chauffeured’ peers.

The link between active travel and  improved heart health is clear, but the benefits extend beyond the physical. Active travel creates opportunities for children and young people to connect with their friends and neighbours, develop a greater sense of independence, enhance spatial awareness of their neighbourhood and embed improved knowledge of road rules and safety. At a broader level, more walking, cycling and use of public transport to and from school means less traffic congestion around school precincts and a safer road environment.

So, given the breadth of benefits, why are fewer Australian children using active travel to and from school? Parents report concerns about ‘stranger danger’ and even more so, the risks presented by traffic. Family and home dynamics have changed too, and with more parents working car travel can be more convenient – especially when trips involve multiple destinations, for example, shops, childcare, sport, music lessons, and so on.

Yet despite this, there’s something enticing about the thought of a more relaxed start (or finish) to the day – for example, riding with the kids to school or chatting about their day as you walk them home. One of my best memories of my two boys, as young primary schoolers, is our ten minute walk every morning and every evening.

The distance children are willing or allowed to travel is a valid consideration of course. Undersandably, children are more likely to walk or ride if the distance between home and school is less than two kilometres. So this has implications for how we design our new neighbourhoods or improve the existing ones. For example, co-locating a school near shops, other essential services and public transport links can make it easier for parents to walk their children to school and then catch a bus or train to work.

Neighbourhoods around schools also need to be acknowleged as areas where people take priority over cars. Lower speed limits, safe crossing points and well-connected foot and cycle paths around schools are also vital. These are priorities echoed in the Heart Foundation’s Healthy Active by Design tool – an online resource that highlights the latest evidence and showcases best practice examples. While there are many good examples in Australia, we have some distance to go before healthy planning is usual-practice or a requirement in planning policies.   

So, what can we do? Physical improvements to the local school and neighbourhood environment, along with supportive government policies and tailored behaviour change programs can encourage more active travel to and from school. Both real and perceived safety issues must be addressed to reduce parental fears. For example, in 2017 the Brisbane Active School Travel program successfully reduced the number of single-family car trips to participating schools on average by 23 percent. So far, more than 100,000 students have participated in the program.

We need this sort of activity across the country. The Heart Foundation is currently asking the NSW Government to fund a comprehensive Safe Active Travel to School program. The funding would provide significant infrastructure improvements around schools in priority areas and encourage parents, schools, local communities, local and state governments to identify and address local barriers to active school travel. It would also contribute significantly to the NSW Government’s commitment to reducing childhood obesity.

Such approaches are a sound investment that will pay dividends well into the future. They will not only improve children’s health now, they will encourage them to develop healthy physical activity habits that deliver a lifetime of better health. Not to mention getting parents out of their cars and walking more too!

(Laurie Patton is a former non-executive director of the Heart Foundation of Australia and is currently a member of the NSW division’s Local Advisory Board.)