Q: For each of the following statements please indicate how strongly you agree or disagree (%)

A new study has found 63% of school children in Australia are taken to school for all or part of the journey by car. This contrasts with just 16% who travelled by car in 1970 (although the figures aren’t strictly comparable as the latter also includes university students).

The study, Active travel to school, was undertaken jointly by the Cycling Promotion Fund and the Heart Foundation. Just over a thousand randomly-selected parents of children aged 5-18 years were surveyed about their offspring’s travel behaviour during February 2012. Parents used a self-completing on-line questionnaire.

The report doesn’t say, but I estimate the 1,005 parents surveyed have around 2,200 children. There’s a 60/40 split between the proportion aged 5-12 years (primary school) and those aged 13-18 years (high school). The error margin is ±3% but there’s no information on the response rate, so caution is in order.

Despite what the title says, this study is primarily about cycling. It found only 11% of children cycle to school in Australia. That seems modest but it’s much better than the figure of 2.6% cited here (although again, it’s not clear that apples are being compared with apples). It’s also high relative to the mere 1% of adults who currently cycle to work.

What’s more heartening is 37% of students use active modes for all or part of their journey to school – it’s nowhere near good enough but it’s better than I imagined.

Unfortunately it isn’t possible to disaggregate reliably the relative shares of public transport and walking, or to determine to what extent they were used in combination with being driven*. Nor can the travel behaviour be broken down by age – it would’ve been really useful to have a primary versus high school split, as they seem to be different ‘markets’ when it comes to active modes.

The good news is parents have a very positive attitude to cycling. Around 90% say it’s a good way to get fit and 89% say it’s important for children to learn to ride a bike.

But here’s the rub. Only 25% think it’s safe for a child to ride a bike to school alone and less than half (44%) would recommend cycling as a method of transport. And only around a third (35%) think cycling is “a safe way of getting around”.

Further, 80% consider there’s too much traffic on the road and 79% think there aren’t enough cycle paths for children to get to school safely (see exhibit). Unsurprisingly, when asked why they don’t allow their children to cycle to school, the most frequently nominated reasons relate to safety.

Safety is undoubtedly the main obstacle to cycling to school but it’s not the only one. Just over 40% say one reason they don’t allow their children to cycle is because of distance; 21% nominate time; and 11% give before and after school activities as a reason.

When asked what improvements would lead them to permit their child to cycle to school, safety is again the main issue. But 48% of parents nominate distance, 43% time, and 43% weather and climate, indicating they currently see these as obstacles.

It seems there’s a group of parents who think cycling to school is just too hard. Some of them  probably have children at high school who travel long distances (28% of the sample attend private schools), but in most cases I expect the reluctant ones will be parents of younger children.

The survey finds only 13.2% of parents think a child of nine or younger should ride unsupervised to school. In fact even when children are in their sixth year of primary schooling (the year they turn 11), only 44% of parents feel they should ride to school alone. It only reaches a majority in the seventh (and last year) of primary school, by which time two thirds of parents think 12 years is an appropriate age for cycling to school alone.

I don’t think we should lose sight of what’s important here – discouraging parent’s from driving their children to and from school. Whether the alternative is cycling, walking or using public transport doesn’t matter all that much. All three are active modes. It’s reducing driving that’s important.

Cycling certainly needs to be made safer for the 11% who currently cycle regularly and there’s doubtless room to increase that figure by improving parents’ perception of safety. The sorts of actions required to make cycling more attractive have been well documented.

My feeling though is the weight of effort should be directed at encouraging parents to let their children walk and/or take public transport to school. Parents are more likely to be comfortable with these modes as a substitute for being driven than they are with their children cycling on roads.

Devising policies to encourage greater use of active modes also requires a good understanding of why they fell away in the first place. The sharp decline in the proportion of children who walk to school is instructive because while higher traffic levels were undoubtedly a factor, I wouldn’t expect walking to be affected to the same degree by adverse traffic perceptions as cycling.

Yet walking is the mode that probably lost the most ground to driving. That suggests economic and social factors, like the expansion in car ownership and the increase in women’s participation in the workforce, were also very important reasons for its decline. I think these sorts of factors require more carefully thought-out strategies than simply improving infrastructure.

In fact I wonder if the glory days of cycling to school haven’t been romanticised just a little. Virtually no one cycled to my high school way back in the day, and my wife says it was the same at her high schools. I cycled in my last two years at primary school but prior to that, like most other kids, I walked. As I recall, hardly any girls cycled.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get an objective handle on the level of cycling to school historically – non-motorised transport was largely ignored by transport researchers until relatively recently. For example, the Sydney Area Transportation Study undertaken in 1971 didn’t collect any data on walking, let alone cycling!

* The survey says 25% of children walk and 21% take public transport, but we don’t know how much of that walking was to access public transport.

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