“For most people, the easiest and most acceptable forms of physical activity are those that can be incorporated into everyday life. Examples include walking or cycling instead of travelling by car, bus or train.”
UK’s four Chief Medical Officers
Northern Ireland has officially failed to meet its 2011-15 target for active travel to schools.
In the 2011-15 Programme for Government, the combined walking and cycling targets were 36% (primary) and 22% (post primary) of journeys to school. By 2015-16 we ‘achieved’ just 29% and 18% respectively, but even this masks a truly disgraceful statistic – cycling as the main mode of school transport for kids from 5 to 18 years old was officially ZERO PER CENT.
Statistics released by the Department for Infrastructure show just how car-addicted we have become on the school run. Almost two-thirds of primary age children get driven to school.
Walking to school fares reasonably well at just less than one in three primary school journeys, dropping to just under one in five post-primary journeys.
But cycling barely registers as a transport mode.
Is it that kids are living so far out of school catchment areas that walking or cycling isn’t viable? Not according to the study.
While rural kids in post-primary education do on average face significant travel distances, at least half of all other kids are within easy range of a cycle to school, with a whopping two-thirds of urban primary school kids living within 1 mile* of their school.
In terms of action which can be taken right now to change this situation, it’s worth noting the ongoing consultation into the Belfast Bicycle Network Plan.
What does the initial proposal for the ‘Primary Network’ look like when superimposed on a map of all schools in Belfast?
Highlighted in yellow, just 79 out of 239 Belfast schools lie within 200m of the proposed (Draft) Belfast Bicycle Network Plan. Another knock-on effect of the decision to avoid almost every arterial street in the city is that the main network is frustratingly out of touch with most city schools.
— Ed Simpson (@EdSimpsonNI) February 24, 2017
With no sign of a ‘Secondary Network’ in planning, or vehicle de-prioritisation in-between the ‘Primary Network’ routes, most Belfast schools have no realistic prospect of gaining safe cycling routes within the next decade or more.
“Promoting active lifestyles can help us address some of the important challenges facing the UK today. Increasing physical activity has the potential to improve the physical and mental health of the nation, reduce all-cause mortality and improve life expectancy. It can also save money by significantly easing the burden of chronic disease on the health and social care services.
“Increasing cycling and walking will reduce transport costs, save money and help the environment. Fewer car journeys can reduce traffic, congestion and pollution, improving the health of communities. Other potential benefits linked to physical activity in children and young people include the acquisition of social skills through active play (leadership, teamwork and co-operation), better concentration in school and displacement of anti-social and criminal behaviour.”
Start Active, Stay Active [Eng/NI/Sco/Wal CMOs 2011]
Imagine cycling the school run / trip to work with this amount of safe space and priority in Belfast http://t.co/W7tE4jjboy
— NI Greenways (@nigreenways) July 31, 2013
A lot of the recent talk about congestion in Belfast doesn’t get past the selfish requirement that any single private motorist must have road priority – at the expense of bus passengers, those cycling. There are huge issues in society which a transport policy prioritising school active travel with hard capital can solve – but realistically the private motorist will have to be inconvenienced in some way to provide real solutions.
Allowing free rein for vehicle travel to, from and around schools is almost completely incompatible with growing cycling and walking rates, for one obvious reason.
Safety concerns are undoubtedly the main reason why parents don’t let their kids cycle to school, whether accompanied or alone.
“Whilst 42% of people think Belfast is a good place to ride a bike overall .. only 23% of people believe that safety for children riding a bike is good or very good.”
Belfast Bike Life Survey 2015
When authorities try to encourage parents and kids to cycle to school, they just can’t help dangerising it – like advertising Bike To School Week with a primary school kid being chased down by a massive HGV:
— roadtozero (@roadtozero) June 2, 2015
Even the Public Health Agency unwittingly makes one-third of its Get a Life, Get Active promotion of the health benefits of cycling about danger and safety.
The sheer weight, volume, noise and fumes of school run traffic makes cycling and walking deeply unpleasant for most. The lack of dedicated safe routes covering the “last mile” or beyond takes cycling from undesirable to impossible.
And this is where the crisis in childhood obesity demands we stop wringing or hands over the grip of cars around our schools and actually put serious money into infrastructure, not soft promotion.
“Almost one in four Northern Irish children born at the beginning of the new century was obese by the age of 11, a new study suggests.”
BBC News NI, Nov 2014
Three quarters of kids in Northern Ireland do not meet guidelines for physical activity – and increasing active travel to and from school would be a simple fix to this.
— Aileen Moynagh (@Ailser99) February 24, 2017
Not only would giving kids the freedom to be able to cycle up to three miles to school and back be a major boost to daily activity levels, it would create a virtuous feedback loop of reducing rush hour and school run traffic – to the benefit of those who absolutely must drive, as well as those who wants quieter streets at school time.
“It is estimated that during the morning rush hour 20% of the cars on our roads are taking children to school, we only need to look at how much clearer our roads are during the school holidays to appreciate how much of an impact the school run has.
“Congestion at the gates is a major problem for many schools as large volumes of traffic can pose a very real danger to children being dropped off.”
Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy
Belfast Telegraph 18 May 2009
One quick fix which could be rolled out across Belfast would be to replicate the School Streets scheme which has transformed nine schools in Edinburgh – providing physical barriers to the daily influx of vehicles to allow walking and cycling space to flourish.
But ultimately we need a dense, high quality network of safe cycleways, linking our schools, if we want to support the type of freedom and activity which Dutch and Danish kids enjoy.
— NI Greenways (@nigreenways) April 22, 2014
The Belfast Bicycle Network Plan could be repurposed right now to make a significant difference to cycle to school levels over the next ten years. It will also become the template for other urban area plans across the country, so getting it right now is crucial for our cycling future.
The era of softly, softly promotion of school cycling in the absence of constraint of traffic is over – trying the same failed approach again and again would be madness. If we take the tough decisions to make everyday cycling easy enough for a child, the rest of us will discover we have a viable new transport network.
“Whilst my Department has a part to play in addressing congestion, the issues here go far wider, recognising that the road network will never be able to resolve all the issues – some of this goes to the trade-offs people are willing to make between the convenience of their own cars and the time taken to travel.”
Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard Dec 2016
*Report methodology includes journeys up to 1.5 miles in the 0-1 mile category