Share of trips to primary school by mode, Melbourne 2012-13 (source data: VISTA)
Share of trips to primary school by mode, Melbourne 2012-13 (source data: VISTA)

I’ve pointed out before that Malcolm Turnbull’s vision of a city where all trips can be made by walking, cycling or public transport within a maximum of 30 minutes is a rubbish idea when it comes to work-related journeys (see Is Turnbull’s “30-minute city” all spin (or a really useful idea)?)

But what about the journey to school? Surely primary school trips are ideal candidates for travelling solely by active modes within the 30-minute limit? Thanks to the release of the latest phase of the Victorian Integrated Survey of Travel and Acitivity (VISTA) it’s possible to take a more informed look at this question.

At first glance the answer might appear to be yes; VISTA shows that at present 90% of journeys to primary school in Melbourne already take less than 30 minutes.

But that’d be wrong; 75% of them are made by car. Indeed, over 70% of the primary school trips that take less than 10 minutes are made by car!

One of the reasons for such high car use becomes clear when we look at distance; not many primary students live close to their school.

Only 23% travel less than one km to get to school and 47% less than two km i.e. more than half of primary school students in Melbourne travel over two kilometres to get to the school they attend. Almost a quarter travel more than five kilometres!

The good news is 65% of students who live within one kilometre of school use an active mode i.e. walking, cycling, public transport. Yet even for these sub one kilometre trips, 35% still get driven; the charitable view is they’re preps and junior school students, or traffic is particularly hazardous on their route to school. (1)

But once the journey to school becomes longer than one kilometre, driving increases dramatically.

For trips of between one and two kilometres, the use of active modes plummets to 20% and driving’s share escalates to 78%. Above two kilometres, active transport modes are used for just 6% of school journeys.

How much time and distance are primary school students and their parents prepared to devote to using active modes to get to school?

The best guide is provided by those students who already walk, cycle or use public transport; 80% of their journeys are less than 20 minutes. Moreover, 75% are less than one kilometre and 96% less than two kilometres.

However these students aren’t likely to be representative of those who are currently driven. Active transport users live closer to school on average and are probably older (grade 5 or 6), have a safer than average route, or have an older sibling to escort them. Or perhaps their parents can’t drive them or have an unusually positive attitude toward active modes.

In the absence of a major policy intervention, their travel behaviour probably represents the upper limit of what the active mode distance/time needs to be if substantial numbers of parents and children are going to see it as an attractive alternative to driving i.e. 20 minutes/one kilometre.

Yet as noted 53% of primary school students currently travel two km or more (94% by car) to get to school. This doubtless has multiple causes e.g. low density of schools, children attending private or out-of-zone schools.

Of course if Mr Turnbull only cares about giving all students the option of getting to school within 30 minutes by active modes the task will be a lot easier, although still daunting.

That might wash in politics but what should matter for policy is outcomes; actually getting the great majority of primary school students out of cars and walking or cycling instead.

We know from places like the Netherlands it can be done. The scale of the required intervention though is enormous. It would require a major investment in protected cycling infrastructure in particular, but that alone wouldn’t be anywhere near enough.

It would also require concerted and politically difficult action to make driving children to school an unattractive option. It might require other politically risky (and debatable) actions too, like zoning children to their nearest school.

The 30-minute city might look easy at first glance, but closer inspection suggests even making substantial headway on primary school trips will need much more commitment and political courage than Mr Turnbull – or any other current politician, state or federal, for that matter – looks capable of delivering.

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  1. For practical purposes, “active mode” in the context of existing journey to primary school travel means walking because cycling’s share is small and public transport use is negligible.