Marc, Josie and Lena (also representing 30Please) attended a TfNSW sponsored stakeholder workshop on active travel to school last Friday.
We were pleased to hear from the Transport Minister Jo Haylen, who announced her intentions to pull out all the stops – in her words “do everything all at once” – to get more kids walking and cycling to school.
While many great ideas were floated, we were left reflecting on the scope of the exercise, which pre-supposed younger primary school children (under 10) being accompanied by parents. The narrow focus also failed to identify (and attempt to solve) larger problems with traffic around schools (safety, air quality), kids getting insufficient exercise, and poor walking environments in general.
In NSW, TfNSW recommends parents accompany children up to the age of 10. Countries with high rates of active travel to school don’t have policies like this – rather children are encouraged to gradually become independent according to the individual child’s rate of development. Streets and places are designed knowing that children will be present. Consequently countries like Japan (where independent walking starts as young as 4), Germany and the Netherlands (6 to 8) have 75-90% of kids using active travel to get to school, with a gradual increase in independent travel through the primary school years, compared to only 25% in Australia. In international rankings, Australia scores a D+ as a result, and at current rates of decline we are only a short walk from an F, being 20% or under.
Australia ranks very poorly for children’s independent mobility in general, and this has negative effects on children’s wellbeing, as well as contributing to our increasing rates of childhood obesity. Giving kids more autonomy raises kids’ mental health through greater social connection and freedom to roam.
With this in mind, we recommend the government should set an overall objective for children’s travel – for example the objective could be:
- Getting more kids walking/cycling to and from school accompanied by parents (while making no changes to the current street designs and age guidelines), or
- Kids should be able to autonomously get to school and regular activities from age 8 (requiring a different ethos in the design of roads and streets for safety, with additional benefits for children’s independence and parents’ time), or
- Instilling sustainable and healthy travel habits in kids (above + long-term behaviour and health aims – across multiple travel modes), or
- Reducing the need for families with kids to use cars, for any trip (above + Net Zero through mode shift, with additional benefits for families’ cost of living)
If one of the latter aims, encapsulated by the idea of a “Child-Friendly City”, initiatives should be broadened to consider other complementary outcomes and incorporate other sustainable modes of transport, for example:
- Infrastructure improvements beyond the immediate school area, such as 30km/hr local roads, traffic signal changes and cycleways on higher speed roads – helping parents also use active transport for their trips beyond the school gate. One of the clear factors for children using active transport is whether their parents do so in general.
- Improving school site selection to favour walkable catchments in lieu of larger schools, or schools with lopsided catchments on the edge of town.
- Changing the School Student Transport Scheme in NSW to offer free and discounted Opal cards to all under 18yos for all travel, in order to encourage independence and high PT use as a habit, modelled on the Zip Oyster Card.
A broader focus is likely to do more to increase kids’ active travel to school, along with a host of other benefits, than a narrow focus on the trip to school.
We look forward to seeing the next steps.