Schools are well and truly back – and with them the dreaded school-run traffic. The car is the usual means of travel to school for a third of kids, and makes up about 27% of rush hour traffic in London. According to the AA, only 20% of schools encourage cycling, often because of safety fears.
Growing up in rural Somerset, I dreamt of riding my bike to school, but three miles of narrow, winding country road, much of it national speed limit, stood in the way. There was nothing wrong with the school bus, but I was missing out on the many benefits of riding my bike.
While many kids, rural and urban, face similar barriers, there are solutions without major interventions such as fully protected cycleways. Though obviously proper bike lanes would be the safest option, rolling them out takes time and the kind of largesse the current Government is more likely to splash on climate-busting roads.
One primary school chair of governors in Oxford and Reading, Zaki Moosa, writing in a recent blog, called the school run ‘the biggest safeguarding risk of all’, because of the danger parents unintentionally pose to other children by driving theirs to school. According to the AA, 56% of parents reported traffic chaos near schools at pick-up and drop-off times. As kids returned after the holidays my social media timeline was littered with videos of jammed roads and inconsiderate driving.
‘School Streets’ are a powerful and relatively simple measure that councils can implement to protect children cycling and walking to school. These restricted road closures in the morning and afternoon around the school can improve safety and boost walking, wheeling and cycling. According to research commissioned by Mums for Lungs, these School Streets are ‘likely to be feasible’ for around half of schools (44-50%).
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While cities outside of London have implemented School Streets at less than 5% of schools, the research estimated if London, Leeds, Birmingham and Bristol alone fully rolled out the measure it could save 32 million car trips per year, or 71 million km of driving. Separate research found the measures cut nitrogen dioxide by up to 23%, were supported by 81% of parents and encouraged 18% of parents to drive less.
Active Travel England is rating councils on their cycling and walking delivery performances to date, and will prioritise funding to those with the capacity and drive to deliver decent infrastructure. For councils with less of a track record they’re likely to fund measures such as School Street programmes.
There’s an even simpler intervention – cycle training. It is by no means a replacement for safer roads but it’s certainly a good start. Last month, while researching a book I’m writing, I visited a secondary school where half of the children cycle each day. I witnessed pelotons of kids riding home together, despite there being no visible measures to restrict motor traffic.
Most of them will have received Bikeability training, teaching them bike handling skills and how to ride in traffic. It gave these kids the confidence and ability to negotiate at times pretty hostile road conditions.
The kids were clearly having a brilliant time cycling home, despite some pretty dodgy overtaking manoeuvres by drivers. One parent told me the school actively encourages kids to cycle to school from the off, and because it’s the easiest thing, due to the local road layout, that’s what they do.
The Bikeability Trust, the charity tasked with delivering cycle training for adults and children, describes cycling as a life skill like swimming and highlights in some recent research the need for professional training – most parents understandably don’t feel confident teaching children to ride in traffic. The Trust wants all kids to be able to learn cycling skills and confidence – and hopes to achieve this from next year. The latest £20m ‘record’ Government funding is only enough to train 500,000 kids – not even a single year group.
Cycle training helped me understand the roads and gave me the confidence to ride wherever I wanted – opening up a world of opportunity once I got big enough to tackle that winding country road and many like it. It’s surely time that all kids were given that chance, in any way we can make it happen.
Transport journalist Laura Laker has her ear to the world of UK cycling infrastructure, and reports each month in Cycling Plus magazine on the setbacks our community faces – and how we’re fighting back
This article appeared in issue 400 of Cycling Plus, out now. To buy the magazine or subscribe for regular copies, head here.
Illustration: Harry Tennant