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The transport method that's good for children's health and the planet

23 March 2022

While waiting for off-road walking and cycling routes to become available, Ray Powell shares how a community project encouraged active travel in his region and got children to school safely. 

The transport method that's good for children's health and the planet
Anyone can do bike trains, just make it safe and keep it fun. Image credit: Pavel K/Shutterstock

As civil engineers we pride ourselves on enabling sustainable infrastructure solutions that benefit users and are safe for people and the environment.

A case in point would be encouraging children to make trips to and from school by cycling, as promoted by the government’s various active travel initiatives.

Back in 2020, the then Cycling and Walking Minister Chris Heaton-Harris launched the government’s vision to make England a great walking and cycling nation set out in its plan Gear change: a bold vision for cycling and walking.

In the same year, he also announced that £3m would be made available to fund the initiative of getting more children riding their bikes or walking to school.

In his statement, Heaton-Harris stated: “Cycling and walking is good for people and the planet’s health, so we want half of all journeys to be cycled or walked by 2030. To do that, we must encourage young people to see cycling and walking as normal as getting the bus or train.”

Supporting local authorities to enable cycling and walking routes

Building on this aim, the government’s most recent initiative in January of this year, has been to launch Active Travel England (ATE), a new executive agency headed up by interim national commissioner Chris Boardman MBE.

Part of ATE’s remit will be to scrutinise local authority plans for active travel and supporting them to create ambitious schemes that will enable more people to walk, wheel and cycle safely.

So, the direction and framework has been laid out, councils have set targets to deliver and ATE has been tasked to spread good practice in design, implementation and public engagement backed up by local police authority.

The ideal solution would be to end up with dedicated multi-use paths leading to every school in the country, taking children and parents away from the dangers of cars, trucks and buses.

But we must be realistic here - in many cases the funding is just not available in the foreseeable future.

Dangerous routes and free bus travel

In the meantime, is there anything practical we can do to encourage safer cycling to school?

West Sussex County Council has eligibility rules around bus travel, which I am sure are fairly typical.

It advises that pupils can qualify for free bus travel if they live further than three miles away and are over eight years old. This is reduced to two miles for any child under eight.

It does generously advise: “exceptions may be made where the county council regards the walking route between the home and the school as too hazardous for the child to walk, even if accompanied by an adult”.

Note – no mention made of cycling!

All aboard the bike train

One idea successfully trialled in my area, West Sussex, is the 'bike train'.

Parents and other volunteers got together to train and support a safer riding group for 11-14 year olds to travel the three miles from their home in Steyning to their school at Upper Beeding.

The initiative was championed by local bike mechanic Nick Marks, who initially sorted out safeguarding procedures with the school and insurance, and obtained consent forms from parents.

Bikeability training was followed by a trial ride-out.

Feedback from adult volunteers and the children resulted in slight tweaking of the route and the timetable, with a group of excited school kids and parents finally setting off on the inaugural Bike Train in September 2021.

Top tips for setting up a bike train

  • Plan it well.
  • Make it safe.
  • Keep it fun.
  • Slowly hand over responsibility.

After an initial month of daily accompaniment by Nick and his team of volunteers, the children got enough confidence to ride in a peloton unsupervised, with Nick checking in every now and then.

Nick said that the group dynamic was interesting, with the kids taking on a self-policing role very quickly. He explained: “Unsafe cycling habits were not tolerated within the group. Bearing in mind we are talking about 11-14 year olds, the level of maturity shown was terrific”.

Of course, it would be great to have a fully segregated off-road alternative linking the two communities, and plans are inching forward to achieve this (but that’s for another blog).

In the meantime, a generation of children will hopefully be empowered to get on their bikes and ride with confidence, enjoying the safety in numbers that the Bike Train provides.

Does your local authority encourage active travel?

Learn more about the West Sussex Bikeability Training

Read ICE's insight paper on Cycling and Walking Strategies

Download the paper
  • Ray Powell, technical director at Infrata and member of the ICE South East Transport panel.