Why has walking to school stumbled so badly?

The proportion of children driven to primary school has raced ahead over the last 30 to 40 years. The standard solutions won't change that by much, but there's hope

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

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.


  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?).
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12 thoughts on “Why has walking to school stumbled so badly?

  1. Oz (Horst) Kayak

    Strong evidence exists showing time spent walking between home and primary school is a significantly healthier activity than sitting in a car for the same journey.
    There are are at least two major health factors that can impact negatively on the young person.
    Firstly the air pollution level in the vehicle cabin is 3 to 10 times greater than that on the nearby foot paths. Secondly the metabolic benefits of time spent in physical activity such as by walking compared to sitting are universally accepted.
    There are a few disease rates still on the increase. At the top of the list is diabetes. Maybe longitudinal studies are needed to prove which changes in life style are exposing people to increasing cumulative long term exposure rates. Is the highest risk category on health attributable to sedentary behaviour, air born toxins and 2.5 micron particulates?
    The long term health impact of the increasing time young people spend sitting in cars over the first six years of schooling warrants more research.

    1. Alan Davies

      New study released this week by researchers from QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute bears on some of the issues you raise. The published paper, Sex-specific associations with youth obesity in Queensland, includes this significant sentence: ” Active transport for school was not associated with BMI”.

  2. Mr T

    Is it also a legal factor? In Queensland it is now illegal to leave a child under 12 without supervision for an unreasonable period of time. Determining what is reasonable is not exactly an easy thing for a lay-person to do.

  3. Dudley Horscroft

    Have you been on a bus with a lot of school children? It is bad enough when there is a big burly driver to try to reduce the ill-discipline that occurs. But consider it with no adult on board – an ‘autonomous’ or ‘self-driving’ bus would be a riot. Ideal for bullying when no longer restrained by authority, and as far as older pupils go, a plausible ideal place for sexual intercourse, whether with consent or without. Definitely a mobile ‘unsafe place’.

    No, the only solution is to ensure that there is a substantial distance between school entrance and the nearest road (a gated driveway for school operational purposes excepted). About 400 metres from road would be a reasonable minimum – at least this would guarantee 800 m walk each day. Plus no stopping zones in the nearby roads – suggest nearby roads are one way, one lane only. With brown bombers ready to catch the offenders!

    Plus reasonable cycle racks are needed – my school must have had about 150 bike racks along the playground wall – a distance of about 50 metres. This for from 625 to 675 pupils (it varied year on year). The remainder walked or came by bus, often two buses. I would say no-one came by car.

    Arising from this, was it possible to segregate the data by type of housing surrounding the school? I would think that in Radburn planned areas the percentage coming by foot or bike would still be high.

    1. Alan Davies

      The numbers are from Vista which doesn’t collect data by type of housing.

      Re your reference to Radburn planning, new estates in the Growth Areas are pretty good in terms of segregated walking and cycling paths. But the big and difficult challenge is retro-fitting infrastructure in established suburbs that, while OK for us adults, must also be acceptable to the parents of primary school children.

      BTW re kids misbehaving, remember these are primary school children; they’d be under video supervision; trip times would be short; and buses like this one don’t in any event provide much privacy.

  4. meltdblog

    There is at least one School in Melbourne trying parking restrictions around the property:
    Syndal South Primary School has no stopping zones around the entrances to the school, some of which are only applied during drop-off/pick-up times. Instead the parents in cars park on the side roads and walk their kids the final distance.

    Sadly busses and children don’t have a great track record, “child dragged by bus” (while caught in the doors) is an all to common occurrence around the world even when the busses are driven by professional drivers.

    1. Alan Davies

      It’s true most casualties associated with buses occur when children get on and off buses, but even with that they’re still 4.4 times safer in terms of the risk of serious injury or fatality than walking, and 55 times safer than cycling, according to research by Prof David Hensher. They’re also 1.4 times safer than driving.

      1. meltdblog

        That analysis from Hensher has some substantial gaps in application to the child demographic, and along with being rather old (1990’s) brings up some questionable results compared on other analysis. Busses are extremely bad choices when you consider the deaths involving them (as noted by the Austroads paper you linked in the same article above) while safe for the passengers they cause excessive deaths overall per passenger.km when compared to modern cars:
        Using the data as typically collected and measuring risk based on the fatalities of particular road users misses the big picture of what is causing those deaths and so I presented it above.

        A big differentiator for child safety would be supervised compared to unsupervised, be that as a pedestrian or cyclist and making it hard to compare to motor transport where they have little agency in the activity.

  5. Cam

    As a parent of primary school aged children (who do walk) I can tell you that the main reason is because of unsafe walking spaces and crossings on the roads. It’s hard enough for me to walk to the kids school without being reversed over. I’ve witness kids riding to school (quite slowly) on the footpath and being hit by cars coming out of driveways. You really already answered the question this way – less space for cars, more for bikes and pedestrians. This is actually a generally good rule of city design – after all, vehicle lanes are an inefficient way of moving people for the space.

  6. Edward Re

    Make it harder to park at school. If it is convenient, then people will always drive. They don’t think of the risks or the air pollution problem for kids.

  7. Jason Murphy

    If there’s one thing parents are going to fear more than stranger danger it’s robot buses! I can imagine that they will need to run empty for a large number of years accident free before they gain acceptance.
    Do not doubt the ability of the human mind to ignore the data. Yielding your safety to a robot freaks people out. Such buses will need to prove an enormous advantage statistically and avoid even a single disaster caught on dashcam before parents will load their poppets aboard.

    1. Alan Davies

      Interesting point, but I’m taking the long view. Even if it’s 20 years it’ll still be a lot faster than the infrastructure-based alternative. But the experience so far with the Perth driverless bus trial suggests it’ll be proved-up quicker than that (e.g. standby driver not required).

      Say a trial starts at an early-adopter school in 2025 when the tech is proven. Convincing parents will require a cautious approach e.g. maybe 3 months with an engineer to monitor routing and boarding safety and 12 months with a volunteer parent. It might initially be restricted to students in years five and six. If it goes without mishap and restrictions are placed on car drop-offs and pick-ups outside schools, the demonstration effect should attract more children.

      We can expect parents will start seeing other implementations of autonomous vehicles to get used to the idea. There’ll still be the problems that apply to all autonomous vehicles e.g. that blame for crashes caused by the other vehicles might be sheeted home to the autonomous vehicle. I expect the benefits will persuade travellers to be sensible about that.

      I think the key problems will be parents worrying that strangers will board the bus; road safety around drop-off and pick-up at the home address; and bus speeds on main roads if induced traffic can take up road space liberated by the reduction in car-bases school trips.

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