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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.