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30/06/2016

Are we planning for the school run walk?

The government’s draft Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy is laudable, says Hannah Budnitz, but lacks the detail that would encourage and enable more parents to walk to school with their children

In April, as chair of the RTPI’s Transport Planning Network, I was asked to review the government’s draft Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy, which was out for consultation (until 23 May). In the same week, thousands of families around the country were informed where their children had a school place. Realisation: we aren’t planning enough for the school run walk.

The government’s strategy lists four objectives, two for walking and two for cycling. Yet only one of these otherwise broad objectives identifies a demographic group and a journey purpose. Namely: “Increase the percentage of children aged 5-10 that usually walk to school”.

Such journeys offer greater benefits to society than other walking and cycling trips. Walking to school enables children to achieve their medically recommended physical activity levels of 60 minutes a day, combating childhood obesity. It helps children to learn road safety and independence. It promotes sustainable travel habits. It reduces congestion in the morning peak hour. It encourages spatial awareness and engagement with place.

“Who will do the joined-up thinking to plan for the school run to be a school walk?”

It’s a great objective and would be better with a target and dedicated funding attached. Yet, neither targets nor funding will help if planning for the walk to school falls short. Transport planners need to provide safe routes to schools, but first the schools must be within walking distance for children. Which brings me back to that nail-biting day in mid-April for parents of September’s new pupils. The Guardian reported that day that thousands of children missed out on their first choice of primary school.

Now it may be that some parents didn’t choose their catchment school as their first choice, nor a school within walking distance. But articles I saw told tales of children assigned to schools two miles away or more.

Are policymakers aware of the challenge of getting a five-year-old to walk two miles? Children were being placed in schools miles from other siblings. What is a parent to do but drive in their bids to get both children to different schools that likely start at the same time?

One of the children in my daughter’s pre-school class last year lives in a large new housing development with a new primary school built to serve it, but he was 18th on the waiting list.

Can planners ensure that new schools in new developments provide enough places? Should education providers designate walking distance as a priority selection criteria? How will local authorities balance their responsibility for school transport with reduced powers to provide new school places? Who will do the joined-up thinking to plan for the school run to be a school walk?

Hannah Budnitz is a freelance transport planner and chair of the RTPI’s Transport Planning Network

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