Mar 25, 2012

Why don’t kids cycle to school?

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

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

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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11 thoughts on “Why don’t kids cycle to school?

  1. Last name First name

    Parker Alan,
    Hi Kammer its no wonder of that active transport needs a sound measure road risk. In Australia there i no rational measure of road accident risk which is focussed on death rates per billion motor vehicle km, or deaths per 1000 motor registration that ignores walking an bicycling.

    “Active transport” in terms of pedestrian or bicyclist deaths per distance travelled Nationalyit is not included in the Oz big picture of road safety for all roadusers.

    It is different in the bicycle and pedestrian friendly countries that use a human health measure of deaths per 100,000 population which a more rational measure than that use by Oz state road agencies. For example, the data from selected bicycle friendly EU countries which have the following 2010 road death rates per 100,000 population: , Sweden 3.0, Netherlands 3.7, Japan 4.3, and Germany 4.7, Denmark 4.5, Switzerland 4.5 France 6.1. Australia’s death rate is higher (6.2) and the US death rate of 10.5 is even higher.

  2. Krammer56

    A consistent issue when talking about active transport is that road crashes are high profile and gets lots of press, with lovely gory pictures for the TV news.

    Health however, is a far less tangible concept with lots of grey areas. Even harder is the concept of healthy living – a preventative approach to life that is more than just seeing a doctor when you are unwell.

    All of the conflicting stories about what is healthy and what isn’t frankly make it too hard for the average punter (me included) to be really clear about what is healthy living. Sure I know I should eat less and exercise more – but how much? Is [insert favourite food] good or bad for me? Does walking to the bus really make any difference?

    I believe that the biggest consequence of this is that the risks of different behaviours are too hard for the average person to weigh up. Humans are notoriously poor at judging risk. If you ask how parents about risk, the reasons for kids not walking or cycling are often:
    * “stranger danger” – maybe 1-2 in a million (order of magnitude only) or
    * “might get run over” – maybe 1 in 100,000 (order of magnitude again).

    On the other hand with figures like 1 in 4 kids being overweight or obese, with the near certain adverse health impacts, it seems our perceptions are all wrong. We need to find new ways of getting the message across about the relative risks and the benefits of changing the way we travel.

  3. Last name First name

    Parker Alan
    The last post above does not carry my name Alan Parker OAM
    Sorry about that alan

  4. Last name First name

    Hi SBH, Jan Guarards report is of interest and contains excellent data to define the problem and most but not all the most practical approaches. However Went I went the through references the following was missing .

    2011 Parliament UK . Sustrans Free range Kids campaign. Early day motion 1954. ——-
    That this House welcomes the launch of the Sustrans Free Range Kids campaign; calls on the Government to reverse the decline in the proportion of children walking and cycling to school; acknowledges the barriers which prevent children from being able to walk, cycle and play outside as a result of safety concerns; and urges Ministers across transport, health, environment and education briefs to work in a joined-up way to inspire, encourage and support local authorities to invest consistently and coherently over the next 10 years to create safe and pleasant environments for walking and cycling which will not only benefit the health of children but also the environment and communities.

  5. SBH

    and yet

    “…transport accidents

    When infant deaths are included, there were 1,473 child injury deaths between 1999 and 2003. Children who had died from injuries were more likely to have died in transport accidents, than in any other way: 587 children aged 0-14 years (40%) died this way between 1999 and 2003. This was about twice as many as died from accidental drowning, the next most common cause of child injury death.

    Boys were consistently more likely to have died in transport accidents than girls across all child age groups. The difference was greater among 10-14 year olds (150 boys compared with 77 girls) than among 1-4 year olds or 5-9 year olds.

    In most deaths that were the result of a transport accident, the child was either the occupant of a motor vehicle (44% of deaths) or a pedestrian (35%). The remaining deaths were in accidents where the child was a pedal cyclist (5%) or motorcycle rider (4%), or were other transport accidents (12%). Children were much more likely than adults to have been a pedestrian in the accident (16% of people aged over 15 years).”
    ABS 4102.0 – Australian Social Trends, 2005

    So driving is fantastically more dangerous than cycling to school.

  6. hk

    VATS and VISA show more than 50% of the trips chauffeuring kids to school were home based return trips. The long-term health and wellbeing outcomes for the community would benefit by the parents with security and transportation safety concerns cycling with their children along footpaths and mixed mode paths that are posted to permit bike riding at less than 15 km/hr. (Where part of these paths serve as local access for vehicles they should also be posted with 15 km/hr speed limits)

    The DoT databases have been analysed and show that the majority of daily chauffeuring services to schools by mothers are 5 km or less.

    Is part of the behaviour change constraint that kids want chauffeuring services from their mums?

  7. RidesToWork

    Why doesn’t the census ask about travel to school or education? It would be no harder to record than travel to work for adults, using the same space on the form.

    Surely Bicycle NSW and Bicycle Victoria, Pedal Power and their precedents have lobbied for this? Why has it never happened? What was the ABS’s response?

  8. Burke John

    Whilst “road safety” is bigger than Jesus, and John Lennon for that matter in Australia it seems to me that “road safety” is mainly about perpetuating the hegemony of the car on our streets. Is it possible that the motoring consortiums which bought up profitable railways and dismantled them in order to promote cars are also behind the active promotion of so-called road safety? Think of the very real profits to be had against lobbying costs with regards to an issue such as mandatory helmet laws. It would be impossible to resist an investment in that area.

    We need a new term like “transport safety” or something like that. “Road safety” for example seems to imply that bicycles are dangerous and are generally an unregistered and uninsured “road safety hazzard”. A new term that hasn’t been co-opted by an interest group might lend support to parents when considering their children not only riding a bike to school, but generally arriving there under their own carriage which is indeed the real point.

  9. Sue B

    Why can’t the kids cycle on the footpaths if the roads are considered dangerous? And even when I was a kid, there were enough supervised crossings to make it possible to get to school without crossing a busy road alone. And there seems to be way more now. And anyway, why can’t they walk?

    The crux of the problem though is kids going to school out of their suburb. You should be examining this and ways to combat it.

  10. IkaInk

    Interesting piece. Perhaps it was because I was part of the group that did, but it seemed like heaps of kids rode to both my primary and secondary school. So much so at the secondary school that at one point they had to expand the bike cage considerably as it was constantly over crowded. I grew up in Bendigo though, where there is a lot less traffic than the city, and most the roads are very wide, bike lane or not there is enough room with avoid cars pretty easily for the most part.

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