Time trends in the percentage of children and young people who use active transport to and/or from school (source: AHKA – Report Card 2014 on physical activity for children)

The exhibit illustrates a now familiar story; the proportion of children travelling to school on foot or by bicycle in Australia fell by 42% between 1971 and 2013. The great majority of primary age children are now driven to school. For example, 74% come by car in Melbourne and 3% by public transport. Of the 22% who travel by active modes, 19.6% walk and 2.6% cycle (see Surely the ’30-minute city’ makes sense for primary school trips?). (1)

What caused this precipitous drop-off in walking and cycling? The exhibit indicates this change isn’t peculiar to Australia or even to “new world” countries. It’s an international phenomenon, so it’s likely there’s a structural explanation. I’ll dismiss dubious arguments like the “kids of today are different”, leaving a range of more plausible explanations. Over the last 30-40 years we’ve seen:

  • Higher car ownership, now close to saturation
  • Increased female workforce participation
  • Higher traffic levels on streets
  • Increased fear of predatory strangers
  • Longer travel distances from home to school e.g. private schools, specialist schools
  • More after-school activities e.g. after-care, “hot-housing
  • Lower tolerance for risk.

Most of these changes are the result of higher living standards. The last one warrants further comment because it’s an under-appreciated phenomenon. Parents’ tolerance for risk has fallen substantially over the last 30- 40 years. This explains why parents often mention “stranger danger” and road safety as the main reason they drive their children to school even though, as active transport advocates often counter, the objective risks are still extraordinarily low. It explains a lot of behaviours; for example, the seemingly excessive fear of cycling on roads (see How dangerous is cycling?).

So, what can be done to increase the proportion of children who walk or cycle to primary school?

Some argue children should be compulsorily zoned to their local school, but the cost would be very high relative to the benefits (see What to do about schools and “rich switch”?). It would restrict parental choice on matters like religious and cultural education and it would limit the ability of schools to specialise or to benefit from economies of scale. Even then, while 35% of Melbourne children who live within one kilometre of school are currently driven , this rises to 78% for those who live between one and two kilometres.

The practical barrier is the car, both in terms of its attractiveness as a mode for the journey to school and as a potential source of danger for children who walk or cycle. It would be necessary to make driving less attractive by taking some road space away from cars and trucks and reallocating it to active modes. Further, vehicles would need to be “tamed” i.e. required to travel at much slower speeds and to give priority to vulnerable travellers (see Is it time for a 40 kmh speed limit in cities?).

New fringe suburbs reflect much of this thinking but I’m not optimistic about retrofitting the required changes to existing suburbs where in any year 98% of the population already live. It wouldn’t be easy; even cities like Paris and Manhattan with very high mode shares for walking and transit are nevertheless congested with traffic.

I expect the sort of compromises that can practically be made with drivers in Australian cities would yield walking and cycling options over time that’re reasonably satisfactory for adults (e.g. segregated on-road cycle paths, Quietways), but I fear they’d still be unacceptable to the risk-averse parents of young children. I think they’d still find the idea of their young ones crossing even moderately busy roads hard to accept. In any event, many parents would strongly resist restrictions that make driving less useful for them.

Hence I’m not confident big reductions in the mode share of driving for primary school trips can be achieved by promoting walking and cycling. But there’s another way.

Really serious gains are only likely to come from on-demand autonomous buses that carry children to and from home door-to-door. They’d address the concerns of parents by providing short waiting times and safe and secure vehicles e.g. access entry passes, video surveillance, perhaps volunteer monitors.

Operational costs would be low and they’d pay for themselves in terms of social costs many times over by reducing the number of cars ferrying children to and from school. Driverless buses wouldn’t help with exercise (they might even reduce active school travel in aggregate) but the key purpose of transport is getting places; there are other ways for parents and schools to protect the health of young children.

The technology isn’t ready today but it’s getting closer(e.g. see Driverless bus trial in Perth notches up 2,000 passengers). It’s likely to make a bigger and earlier impact than the messy business of relying solely on repurposing road space for active transport and trusting parents will let their children use it to walk or cycle to school.

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  1. The pattern is different for high school students. While 18% (16.7% walk and 1.3% cycle), 36% travel by public transport. Less than half get driven or drive (see Does Turnbull’s ’30-minute city work for secondary students?).