It’s time we spoke up about kids riding to school
I recently visited the Primary School I attended in rural Victoria. The old school, first built in 1870, has been replaced by a new structure on the outskirts of the town. The modern buildings, with their light, open work spaces and landscaped surrounds, offer an attractive learning environment. The old brick school that I attended now serves as a community centre.
There was one surprise at the new facility: a large covered area to house the many bicycles that the students ride to school. In my time, most pupils either walked or rode to school. Only the kids from the surrounding farms were driven, and even some of them rode their bikes into town.
These days, very few children ride to school, with over 60 per cent being driven, and another 20 per cent using public transport. Many schools don’t have a bike shed. According to a survey released by the Health Foundation and the Cycling Promotion Fund this week, 46 per cent of children travel less than ten minutes to get to school.
As today is National Ride to School Day, it is timely to consider the survey results, and what can be done to encourage more youngsters to walk or ride to school.
Up to a quarter of adolescents are overweight or obese, a condition which will impact upon their later health and add to national costs. Inactivity costs the nation more than $10 billion each year. And chronic illness, arising from a sedentary and unhealthy lifestyle, is becoming more prevalent.
Only a quarter of children currently not riding to school had ever ridden to class in the past. Yet 40 per cent of these children had asked their parents if they could ride.
As most children can ride, and most households have at least one bike, the availability of a machine is not the problem.
When asked why they would not allow their children to ride to school, the main concerns expressed by parents centred on safety and the dangers posed by traffic and other road users. Half of the respondents cited personal safety and the amount of traffic as major issues for them. Safety at intersections and crossings, and the speed of traffic along the route were also significant factors in the parental decision.
This is understandable, although the fact that so many parents drive their children to school actually adds to the volume of traffic, particularly in the vicinity of schools!
There is no single, simple answer to this problem. More people are riding more often, and the national cycling strategy aims to double the number over the next five years. But most of the new riders are adults.
What we need is a co-ordinated approach, involving schools, local authorities and parents.
For years, some municipalities have displayed ‘nuclear free zone’ symbols in their streets. Instead of these largely meaningless symbols, how about displaying signs of a ‘bike safe town’ to indicate that a series of measures had been put in place to encourage cycling?
These measures would include the welcome use of footpaths by young riders, designated crossings for cyclists, enforced lower speed limits around schools, and an education program in rider etiquette.
National Ride to School day reminds us of the challenge we face to encourage more children and adolescents to ride. But a concerted program to ensure safety is required if this aspiration is to be fulfilled.
Some municipalities and cycling organisations are tackling the challenge with innovative programs. A ‘bike safe town’ strategy would add to their efforts with a uniform, easily recognisable, and educative program.
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