Zero per cent – our shameful cycling to school level

Northern Ireland has officially failed to meet its 2011-15 target for active travel to schools – and cycling interventions aren’t necessarily on the horizon.

Guest & opinion articles

Written by:

“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?

Data from DfI and OpenDataNI mapped on Carto, © OpenStreetMap contributors

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.

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]

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:

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.

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.

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

5 Replies to “Zero per cent – our shameful cycling to school level”

  1. I cycle the kids to school – on the pavement. I think we need to be realistic about what’s deliverable for the foreseeable future and on school cycling I’d settle for a pavement based approach – clarity on the legal right to use the pavement, action against obstructive parking, plus a programme of kerb drops and other cheap tweaking.

    • Bikefast says:

      The Department will actually build at least 130km of dedicated cycling routes over the next decade in Belfast. They don’t need convincing on that – it’s realistic and achievable. They *can* do more and do it quicker if pressed.

      Mixing bicycle and pedestrian movements won’t encourage more active travel overall – if you managed to get a respectable level of cycling to school, based on shared pavements, you’d discourage walking trips. And think of the cost of upgrading vast swathes of pavements to accommodate cycling – fully prioritised side street crossings (like in NL) and so forth. While a good idea in some areas, it’s a lot of money just to implement a second-best solution.

      A stronger primary network of cycleways linking to traffic-calmed streets with widespread rat-run elimination, coupled with school-directed restrictions on car drop-offs in the immediate vicinity of schools isn’t rocket science, it’s not madly expensive (as the Department are at pains to tell me) and it could be done relatively quickly, if it’s part of a city-wide plan with the overall aim of cutting congestion.

      We’re at peak car in Belfast – all the indicators are there (TomTom, INRIX, looking) and the public understands it – even if the average Billy and Lily don’t see vehicle restriction as a solution that they’re personally willing to suffer – so tough political decisions have to start with the unfettered access to all streets at all times for all purposes, otherwise we’ll continue to tinker around the edges and fail as before.

  2. […] has already pointed out the poor overlap between the planned network paths and location of schools. The proportion of children cycling […]

  3. […] This is off the back of Department for Infrastructure data which shames us all – cycling accounts for 0% of the school run to primary and post-primary schools. […]

  4. […] in physically protected safe routes to school for cycling and walking journeys across the country. On your watch, cycling-to-school levels bob between 0% and 1%, while childhood obesity grows to levels that threaten to destroy the Health Service in years to […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.