Forty years ago most children walked, rode a bike or caught a bus to get to and from school. These days, children are more likely to be “chauffeured”.
A study (Active Travel to School 2012) by the Cycling Promotion Fund and the Heart Foundation in 2012 found that, despite most parents (90 per cent) agreeing that cycling is a good way to get fit and that it is important for children to learn to ride a bike, close to 60 per cent still drive their children to school.
Those results were compared with a 1970 study by the Australian Bureau of Statistics that found quite the reverse: just16 per cent of children were driven to school with the vast majority walking, cycling or catching public transport.
Pedal Power ACT’s Executive Officer John Armstrong was alarmed when the figures came out two years ago and he believes little has changed since.
“There have been no definitive studies since but I don’t believe we’ve seen a marked change. Many of us oldies will remember riding and walking to school when we were kids but for most students now, their long-term memories will be of the back seat of a car,” Armstrong lamented.
We’ve fallen behind internationally as well. The 2012 Charter of Vancouver compared the percentages of children cycling to school between countries all over the world. Australia, at just two per cent fell well behind the likes of China (60 per cent), the Netherlands (50 per cent) and Denmark (40 per cent).
“It’s likely that Canberra’s number is higher than two per cent but that’s still not very encouraging. I think we’re missing a fantastic opportunity to combat child obesity and to get cars off the road,” said Armstrong.
Parents surveyed were asked why they won’t allow their children to ride to school. Almost 60 per cent cited “personal safety” as their primary concern, followed by the amount of traffic en route, the safety of intersections and crossings and the speed of traffic.
Dr Jan Garrard, a senior lecturer at Deakin University, said some of the dangers identified by parents were not well founded.
''There's been an increase in parents' perceptions of the danger, including where a child is kidnapped in Portugal, the UK or the USA, suddenly everybody knows about it around the world. But you could argue the greatest risk is sitting at home eating chips because that will probably do them more harm in the long run,'' she said.
Armstrong agrees and adds that improved infrastructure is not the holy grail either.
“There’s no doubt that we need better infrastructure but the roads and bike paths were no better in 1970 than they are now. Research tells us that safety increases as the number of bike riders grows. The key is to get more people riding and less people driving. We’ll all be safer and the demand for better infrastructure will grow as well,” explained Armstrong.
It’s one of the ironies that Armstrong wrestles with every day.
“Some people express concern for their safety when cycling and yet, if more people rode their bikes, the safety of cyclists would increase.
“Keeping kids safe from cars during school drop off and pick up times is a big issue but imagine if all the kids rode a bike or walked to school,” said Armstrong, "We are doing all we can in the ACT through the Ride or Walk to School program with some great partners, and hope to make some genuine in-roads over the ensuing years".
Over the past few years Pedal Power has been in partnership with the Physical Activity Foundation, the Smith Family, ACT Health and other organisations to implement the Ride or Walk to School (RWTS) program. 20 ACT schools are already involved and Pedal Power expects additional funding from ACT Health so we can expand the program. As part of RWTS, schools are encouraged to be active in planning travel routes, providing security for bikes, running maintenance programs and conducting a host of bike-related events to encourage kids and parents to get on their bikes.