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“Currently, it is not safe for some children to cycle to school”: Sustrans’ Head of Behaviour Change on “fostering a culture of active travel” in schools

On Cycle to School Week, Sustrans' Head of Behaviour Change Chris Bennett says children and families are being "deterred from their right to cycle"

As Cycle to School Week 2023 begins, the UK will see children in towns, cities, and rural areas take to two-wheels to enjoy a generational rite of passage – riding their bikes to school.

For many of us it is easy to remember this time fondly, but there is a reality to cycling to school in 2023 which means children and families are deterred from their right to cycle, despite it being cheaper, healthier, better for their school’s environment, and really good fun.

Currently, it is not safe for some children to cycle to school. Evidence shows that every month 1,200 children are injured in traffic related collisions that happen within 500m of a school, and this is unacceptable.

Dedicated investment in safe infrastructure designed to give everyone the opportunity to cycle safely to school, such as protected cycle paths and School Streets, is needed now, to help generate a culture of active travel.


Children want to be able to travel this way today, and as they grow, but it must be made safer for them. That’s why targeted investment in active travel infrastructure is crucial.

A Sustrans 2021 YouGov survey found 57% of UK pupils feel the environment around their school has too many cars. Just 2% currently cycle whilst 14% want to.

Additionally, the Sustrans Walking and Cycling Index (2021) found just 29% of people think the level of safety for children cycling is good.

> Protected bike lanes on school routes must be urgent government priority, says Sustrans

To increase the number of children travelling actively to school, we must focus on the 78% living between 1-2 miles from their school that are currently driven there.

This shows how widespread the problem of reliance on driving is. Cycling, as well as walking and wheeling, addresses this with profound benefit to family finances, health, and well-being, each of which is as important as ever.

Active travel is better for family finances

The Index also found people on low incomes want greater investment on walking (58%) and cycling (50%), than driving (36%).

Amid a cost-of-living crisis, car-use is now unaffordable for many, putting them at risk of transport poverty. 35% of people on low incomes want to cycle, but do not.

Barriers stopping them from walking or cycling include lack of access to a cycle, journey distance, pavement accessibility, and safety concerns.

Parents and families need the support to be able to change from driving to active travel, for the sake of the family finances. Schools appreciate the importance of this for families more than most and are in a prime place to help make a difference.

Active travel improves health for everyone

Young people aged 5 to 15 who cycle to school are 14% more likely to meet the weekly World Health Organization recommendations for physical activity. Helping more people to cycle to school would reduce anxiety and depression, tackle rising obesity rates, and lower the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, cancers, and Type II diabetes.

Research shows that physically active people take 27% fewer sick days each year than their colleagues. Teachers also find pupils who walk, wheel, or cycle to school arrive more relaxed, alert and ready.

It is the best start to a school day for health and learning.

This must be prioritised with urgency by the government, to dedicate funding to improving cycling safety on roads for children, for the benefit of our stretched National Health Service.

Using the National Cycle Network

1.3 miles is the average distance from home to primary school. 3 miles is the average to secondary school.

57% of primary age pupils live within a mile of their school, whilst 52% of secondary age pupils live within 2 miles.

This show that most pupils and students live close enough to cycle to school, but there is a resource to make it safer and easier.

The National Cycle Network spans 12,619 miles throughout the UK, with approximately 50% of people living within 1 mile of it, and over a third living within a 10-minute walk.

32% of primary schools in the UK are within 1 mile of an access point of the National Cycle Network, whilst 60% of secondary schools are within 2 miles.

The Network is there to be used, and today it is relied upon by families and pupils across the UK. Schools should advise on its use for the benefit of a safe school commute, but this should be inspired by greater government action within investment in active travel.

Fostering a culture of active travel

If a school supports active travel, and the health and financial benefits it brings for pupils and families, then a culture of active travel must be established.

This can be done by:

  • Contacting your local authority to see if there is a Sustrans schools programme in your area, and a Schools Officer with whom you can work
  • Appointing an active travel school champion to focus on active travel opportunities
  • Identifying safe Park-and-Stride locations, five to 10-minutes’ walk from the school
  • Establishing ‘School Streets’, to restrict through-traffic on school roads for an hour at either end of the school day
  • Establishing a bike bus as a safe experience for children to cycle to school
  • Engaging with national events like Cycle to School Week, which this year is led by The Bikeability Trust, and the Big Walk and Wheel

However, this culture cannot just be school-specific, as it needs to be a national priority, with safety as a key focus.

More action is needed through investment in active travel infrastructure - it cannot be sidelined. It must be prioritised, as with any part of education and upbringing, as has successfully been implemented in cities across Europe.

This will increase the numbers of pupils and families cycling, safely and happily, and reduce traffic congestion and pollution. Currently, one in five cars in the morning roads are on the school run. We can change this.

Children deserve to feel safe cycling

Despite their concerns, pupils across the UK still want to travel actively to school.

The Sustrans Index found that 65% of people want cycle paths physically protected from traffic. This is what the people want, and what the children need.

To better ensure the safety of children, provision of safe infrastructure, such as protected cycle lanes near schools and School Streets, must be ensured by the government within active travel investment.

Active travel is a solution in-part to many of the UK’s problems. It has been prioritised as part of education successfully in cities across Europe to reduce traffic congestion and pollution.

The UK needs cycling, as an economic stimulus, a pillar of public health, and to achieve our Net Zero targets. Schools are well placed to help lead that charge and make changes.

Most of all though, children just want to ride their bikes, without fear of the traffic around them. Let's make sure we leave the right legacy to next generation.

Chris Bennett is Head of Behaviour Change at Sustrans. 

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Cycloid | 9 months ago

“Currently, it is not safe for some children to cycle to school”

In my village it is never safe for any children to cycle to school.

polainm replied to Cycloid | 9 months ago

Currently, it is not safe for anyone to cycle anywhere on UK roads. I know this first hand. Plan For Motorists means I should ditch my bike altogether and sit in my car, in traffic jams instead. 

Left_is_for_Losers replied to polainm | 9 months ago

Laughable. This is why the cyclings statistics (as reported by the great bastion of truth, show that cycling is increasing since 2019 (excluding the pandemic highs)

Rod Marton | 9 months ago

From my son's school newsletter:

"We would like to remind parents/carers to be mindful of cyclists when parking in the cycle lane in the mornings and after school".

Says it all, really.

brooksby replied to Rod Marton | 9 months ago

Erm - so, not asking them NOT to park in the cycle lane??

morgoth985 replied to Rod Marton | 9 months ago
1 like

Shirley you jest.  Actually don't answer that.  My blood pressure is bad enough as it is

Sriracha replied to Rod Marton | 9 months ago

I'd like to think it was a passive-aggressive piece of irony designed to shame the idiots into pondering the sheer stupidity and selfishness of their behaviour. If so, I'd wager it fell flat with its intended audience.

polainm replied to Rod Marton | 9 months ago

This is war on motorists. Not letting them park wherever they want, whenever they want. 

the little onion | 9 months ago

I'd argue that the Notional Cycle Network is not fit for purpose around schools, or anywhere indeed - if it isn't segregated by kerbs, verges or bollards, with priority over side roads (i.e. Dutch standard) it isn't infrastructure. I've never seen a single inch of the NCN that meets Dutch standards. Round my way, there is even a stretch with stairs on it, and another that is basically a muddy strip on a field margin. 


Also, I've seen people being hit by cars outside schools, whilst walking on the pavement. Create school streets by default (all roadswithin 100m or so of schools need to be no-parking at the start and end of the school day).

HoarseMann replied to the little onion | 9 months ago

the little onion wrote:

Round my way, there is even a stretch with stairs on it, and another that is basically a muddy strip on a field margin. 

How about a muddy strip AND stairs!

(not NCN to be fair and perhaps excusable given the rural location).

chrisonabike replied to the little onion | 9 months ago

Sustrans seem to have improved in part since they presided over the creation of the National Sign Network (or Nod and Sign Network).  IIRC they have acknowledged that much of it is more toward the "adventure" use case (possibly by an athletic individual on foot, equipped with waders.  Or a boat.)

There are surely some metres of cycle track (sometimes several together) which are roughly on par with Dutch standards.  However as you widen the scope you'll quickly come across a section which would be an instant fail for them.  Plus I think the number of *junctions* up to scratch here can be counted on one hand, and almost everywhere would fail the "facilitates side-by-side cycling" / adequate parking or the "must form a network" bits.

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