The school commute on foot

Issue: Volume 97, Number 10

Posted: 11 June 2018
Reference #: 1H9j88

Studies show that nine out of 10 children want to walk or cycle to school. So why has the percentage of children walking to school dropped in the last 25 years?

The benefits of walking as a mode of transportation have been well researched, from health factors to easing traffic congestion to reducing carbon emissions.

A 2016 study conducted by AUT concluded that 96 per cent of children would prefer to walk or cycle to school; however, data from the Ministry of Transport shows that the number of 5–12-year-olds walking to school decreased from 42 per cent in 1989 to 29 per cent in 2014.

One organisation committed to increasing the number of students walking to school is Living Streets Aotearoa, which provides resources to encourage walking, and works with central and local government to improve infrastructure to support pedestrians.

Living Streets Aotearoa executive committee member and former Wellington mayor Celia Wade-Brown says while some ideas, such as the walking school bus, were implemented here because they were proven to be effective overseas, others are dependent on the local situation.

“We can put people in touch with what’s happening overseas because we’re part of the International Federation of Pedestrians. Some overseas examples fit well; some don’t fit so well into the New Zealand context,” she says.

“It’s not all about walk-to-school buses. That’s appropriate for some children in some places. It’s usually the five- to eight-year-olds; older than that they want to be independent and go with their friends. It just depends on whether they’ve got a safe route to school.”

When students form independent walking habits early on, it benefits them and the wider community, says Celia.

“It means that they’ve got better road safety skills; they’re more likely to catch the bus or the train when they’re older and they have a much better comprehension of their neighbourhood, plus they’re more alert at school, so there’s all sorts of really good reasons.

“The obvious ones from other people’s point of view are that there’s less congestion, fewer emissions, and parents have got more choice about how to get to and from work or home themselves as well.”

What’s stopping students from walking the walk?

“Some people think it will be quicker to drop their children at school, but anyone that’s been in the congestion around school gates usually realises that it’s not the quickest way. We’re not talking about 100 per cent of children walking to school, but wouldn’t it be great to get the majority of primary school students regularly walking to school?

“There will always be some reasons for families who live away from the school or some children who have got special needs, it’s not necessarily going to work for everybody but it should be a possibility for the vast majority of students,” says Celia.

She believes some parents may be choosing to drive their children to school due to safety concerns.

“One reason might be that there’s more traffic around, which is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Often parents drive because they’re worried about other parents driving, so it needs to be a whole-school approach and it often needs to have some investment by local councillors.

“Sometimes it’s also about involving local volunteers for the walking school buses. It could be a roster so that parents and other caregivers or potentially retired people can take a turn once a fortnight; you don’t have to do it every day. You get a good group and especially for the five- and six-year-olds you’ve got families getting to know each other that way as well.”

One way schools can help encourage students and parents to choose a walk to school is to look at any obstacles which may be in place to a child walking and to come up with solutions. Sometimes this could be as simple as recognising a child needs waterproof shoes and a good raincoat.

“Part of it is that, for children, it’s not always road traffic danger. Sometimes it will be they don’t want to walk a particular route because there’s a horrible dog barking or a prickly hedge or a rough footpath,” says Celia.

“All of those things are subject to improvement so I think one thing that the school could do is help students to identify the barriers they have the power to make change.

“I don’t want people to think that everybody has to go on a walking school bus. I remember when I started one in Island Bay, my older son was at Island Bay School; he was nine, and he said ‘it’s a really good idea, Mum, but please don’t make me go on it’. We would walk to school in our walking school bus and on the other side of the road would be my son.

“Again, different solutions for different situations. Sometimes in a rural area it might just be that there needs to be a safer crossing where there’s a state highway,” she says.

“Each school will have slightly different issues, but for pretty much everyone there’s a solution and schools have access to help.”

Celia advocates a joint approach between schools, parents and the community, and encourages schools to share any ideas they may have about improving walking conditions with their local council. Auckland Transport has several staff committed to helping active travel to schools with over 100 walking school buses.

“When I was on the Wellington City Council, if a class of children made a presentation to us, it had quite a profound effect,” she says.

“It just needs to become a priority for councils, schools and families.”

For more information on walking to school and access to free resources, visit Living Streets Aotearoa’s(external link).

If you are interested in incorporating walking to school learning into your classroom curriculum, please visit Feet First(external link)

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:00 am, 11 June 2018

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