Autumn is on the horizon and the “back to school” season is almost upon us. If you’re a parent or guardian, you may already be thinking about getting into the rhythm of homework, bedtimes, packed lunches, and, of course, the infamous “school run”.
The start of a new academic year can provide a boost of energy and motivation to change up some of our habits. Alongside a whole range of health benefits, choosing to walk or cycle to school, rather than drive, slows things down and allows us to spend quality time with our little ones. We asked some parents about their experience, and what cities can do to help more families make this switch…
Healthy lungs, healthy minds
Air pollution is continuing to sky-rocket in urban areas, with all major European cities exceeding the World Health Organization’s guidelines on concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – a dangerous gas mainly emitted by diesel vehicles. Breathing NO2 causes many health issues, including asthma and chronic lung disease, as well as 54,000 premature deaths in Europe every year.
The school run often represents a significant proportion of rush-hour traffic. In London, for instance, 25% of weekday morning peak car trips in 2018 were attributed to school drop-offs – a total of 254,000 trips a day. This period also coincided with the highest rate of serious casualties under 16 years of age due to road traffic collisions.
Gema, a mother in Spain, opts to cycle her school run to “avoid the traffic jams that form around the school and, above all, because it is close to home and it would be silly to go by car – although many people in the neighbourhood do it anyway.”
It’s a similar story in France, where a 2020 survey commissioned by UNICEF found that 70% of parents drive their children to school or nursery at least from time to time, with 47% indicating that it is the mode of transport they use most often. This is despite the fact that only 8% of those surveyed live further than 5km away from their school.
Starting the day on the right foot
Opting to walk, cycle, wheel or take public transport for shorter journeys like these decreases the levels of air pollution around schools, improves road safety, eases stress levels and improves yours and your children’s health by weaving physical activity into the day and allowing you to spend some quality time together.
A YouGov UK-wide polling commissioned by Clean Cities shows that parents find the school run a major source of stress – three times more stressful than work meetings. Switching the car for active travel can help lower those stress levels.
“About 4 years ago we bought a cargo bike that allows us to take both children to school and then continue on the road to work. It was certainly the best choice we could have made”, explain Benedetta and Federico, parents of two in Rome. “We prefer getting around by bike because it is easier for us, not stressful and more practical compared to driving. We can easily chat without worrying about traffic or parking and it is a great way to get more active.”
It’s not always easy for families to make the switch. Cities need to create the right conditions for change.
Although it has so many benefits, making the switch to active travel is not always easy, and you might have some concerns to start with – not least of all safety.
“I usually travel by bike, but the thought of my children cycling alone scares me because I know it can be very dangerous outside of the bike lanes, which are often incomplete or don’t exist at all”, Benedetta admits. “Local authorities should take different actions to raise awareness of cycling and make roads safer for cyclists by giving more space to them.”
Some schools or parents associations – most notably in Italy and Spain – are taking it into their own hands, creating safety in numbers by taking it in turns to lead “bike trains” or “walking buses” of children and young people between home and school. But, of course, cities also need to play their part, and that begins by providing plenty of safe, dedicated space and infrastructure to facilitate walking and cycling. Find out more about how cities are doing in this regard by checking out our City Ranking.
Michaela, a mother of three from South London, purchased an electric bike through her husband’s cycle to work scheme, which they use to ferry two of their children to school – but they have not been able to make the switch completely:
“We have a disabled son, George, and he has to go to a special school which is different to where my other two children go”, she explained. “When we take George, we often have to take the car as he has difficulties with mobility – sometimes we have to take extra things like a large pushchair for him.”
An active school run isn’t possible for all and support, including financial support, is needed to help people switch to cleaner transport – in the case of Michaela and her family an electric vehicle or electric car-sharing scheme.
Fewer cars, more #StreetsForKids
If cities are serious about cleaning up the air and reducing emissions, they need to provide the infrastructure and incentives for people to make the mental and physical shift away from driving and towards active, shared and electric mobility. Shorter journeys, like the school run, are quick wins, and School Streets are an effective way to achieve this modal shift.
Through our Streets For Kids campaign, we are calling on city leaders to create School Streets, streets in front of schools that are closed for traffic, at least during drop off and pick up hours. School Streets have proven to be effective tools to curb air pollution and have the potential to reduce private car use for these trips by encouraging parents to rethink how they take their children to school. School Streets also increase safety and promote wellbeing by bringing people together in these reclaimed urban spaces whilst making the school run less stressful.
“Whenever good examples are part of a child’s day-to-day life they will become activities in their future life”, says Benedetta. “I think that getting children to school by bicycle is the right way to start the day! Using the bicycle as a part of daily life is like a present to the future that parents can give to their children and community.”
If you would like to find out more about School Streets, read through the briefing we produced in collaboration with our partners, BYCS. We also have another Streets For Kids Day of Action in the pipeline for you – so circle the 21st of October in your calendar and follow the hashtag #StreetsForKids on social media to keep up to date!
Anna Becchi | School Streets Coordinator | firstname.lastname@example.org | +39 348 552 8008