How students travel to school

It sounds shocking to those with rosy memories of their school days, but only a very small proportion of school children use a bicycle today as their main means of getting to school.

In Melbourne, just 2.7% of primary school children and 2.7% of secondary school children ride to school. It’s as high as 5.8% among inner city secondary students and as low as 2% of outer suburban primary school children, but there’s no getting away from the fact that bicycles aren’t a popular choice.

This information comes from the Victorian Department of Transport’s VISTA data base, which surveyed thousands of Victorians (including more than 10,000 Melburnians) in 2009-10 on where, when and how they travelled. It’s by far the most reliable and comprehensive source of data available on the travel patterns of Victorians.

There are many reasons why cycling numbers are low, including variable weather, security and parental concerns about road safety. Some cycling advocates think the mandatory helmet law introduced circa 1990 continues to be a major deterrent.

Another reason is parents and schools won’t let children in prep and early grades cycle unaccompanied even on dedicated paths. So the 2.7% figure for primary schools isn’t as bad as it looks – in particular, it understates the level of cycling in grades five and six.

From an ‘active transport’ point of view however, the news isn’t all bad. Compared to cycling, many more children either walk or use public transport as their main means of getting to school.

In fact getting on for a third of primary schoolers of all ages (31.3%) and a clear majority of secondary students (55.5%) use an active transport mode i.e. cycling, walking or public transport. All of these journeys avoid the use of a car and give children exercise.

As long as children aren’t being driven, it’s just as desirable for them to walk or take public transport as it is to cycle. All three modes deliver comparable benefits for the child and for the broader society. Cycling is of course particularly important if those other options aren’t available, but it’s not somehow intrinsically superior to them.

The key objective should be to increase the proportion of children who get to school by active modes rather than by car. It has to be acknowledged that there’s a considerable degree of car-pooling on the school run that often goes unacknowledged, but even so most car trips are chauffering single children.

In the case of primary school children, where car use is highest, the most promising alternative is walking. It doesn’t require specialised equipment, skills or infrastructure and is less daunting to parents than cycling.

Bicycles should have a role in helping to wean parents and children off cars for school journeys but let’s keep it in perspective. We should be agnostic about the choice of (active) mode.

I wonder if we have inflated and unreasonable expectations of school cycling based on a false view of the past. Apparently nearly four times as many children are being driven to school now as was the case in 1970, but it doesn’t follow that the change came at the expense of cycling –  I expect it mostly replaced walking. We seem to have a real problem in getting reliable data on the ‘good old days’.