A couple of days ago I was sent this email circular from PTRC, a company that runs training courses for transport and planning. It’s by David Jilks, the PR manager for CILT (the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport).
Running away from the school run
Happy New Year! My son’s back at school this week. Forgive me for sounding like something from a Hovis ad, but when I were a lad we walked to school. At the grand age of seven I was dragging my duffel bag in one hand and five year old sister in t’other.
But now my lad’s ten and I still do that thing I know really mucks up traffic flows and – far from being smarter travel, is significantly dumber – I drive my kid to school.
Yes, it encourages bottlenecks, peak-period car travel and all those other things that make transport planners weep; of course I see that from a professional point of view. But there’s no bus, it’s over a mile away and he’s not cycling on those roads – not with all those frustrated drivers taking risks to get past the school traffic…
School runs are a tricky thing. They are complete folly, and kids ought to be getting the exercise. But you want, above all, to keep them safe.
The school run is the most pointless waste of resources ever to cause congestion. If transport planners can’t persuade someone who works in the industry, like me, to give it up, then that’s a problem, I confess. The main reason for owning a car, though, is to hopefully get your loved one safely to their destination. So is the school run just a natural impulse we should acknowledge and design into our schemes, rather than discouraging, or do we need to re-educate parents like me?
It’s a refreshingly honest piece and, consequently, a revealing one. It demonstrates that appeals to people’s better nature won’t really work when it comes to tackling school run problems, and the issue of getting people to shift to cycling from driving. Even a transport planning professional, who knows the ‘folly’ of the school run, about how it is a grotesque and ‘pointless waste of resources’, keeps doing it anyway.
And it is grotesque. Some facts and figures from the National Travel Survey –
- 63% of all trips to primary school of 1-2 miles are driven (just 2% are cycled)
- For primary school trips of 2-5 miles, 75% are driven
- 43% of all primary school children are driven to school
- 16% of all motor traffic on the road in urban areas in Britain between 8-9am on a weekday is formed of the school run
- At 8:40am, 24% of all motor traffic in urban areas is formed of the school run
Considered in terms of the congestion and delay alone, that’s shocking, to say nothing of the effects on child health and wellbeing, air quality, and the dangers posed to other people from the presence of so many vehicles on the road. It doesn’t need to be like this.
But while David Jinks acknowledges the severity of the problem, and how silly it is that we all keep contributing to it, his response is slightly curious. He suggests that there is a choice between ‘designing in’ the school run (as currently configured) into new schemes, acknowledging that huge numbers of children will be driven to school, and designing accordingly, or ‘re-education’.
‘Re-education’ clearly isn’t going to make a jot of difference, if David himself continues to drive his child to his school, while knowing how bad it is for everyone to do this. Parents who drive the school run already know there are far better ways for their children to get there, and even if they don’t, telling them that they are awful people for driving is hardly likely to work, in and of itself. They are driving their children to school for a reason.
David Jinks has partly arrived at the answer when he refers to a ‘natural impulse’. The impulse of parents is to keep their children safe, and that explains why so many drive their children to school. It’s the best way to protect their children when so many other parents are also driving.
However, in acknowledging this natural impulse, he suggests that we accommodate it only in a certain set form – through driving. By implication, the only way to make the school run look and feel safe for parents is to continue facilitating driving, apparently the only way to ‘get your loved one safely to their destination’.
But we know that it is entirely possible for children to get safely to school, without being driven, if the physical environment is designed appropriately. This is the reason why parents in the UK are often so reluctant to let their children walk or cycle to school – because of genuine physical danger.
The ‘natural impulse’ to protect children should be designed into our roads and streets, rather than leaving them so unattractive that the ‘natural impulse’ manifests itself in cocooning those children in vehicles, with deleterious consequences for those other children who aren’t so protected.
Framing the problem of the school run as a hard choice between ‘a natural impulse to protect’ and ‘educating’ parents and children to expect, and deal, with risk is wrongheaded. That risk should be removed at source. We cannot expect parents to give up driving all by themselves when so many other parents will continue to do so, and consequently continuing to make the roads and streets around schools unattractive.
This piece from Sustrans is indicative of this mistaken approach, in which the onus is placed on the parents to push their children into cycling to school, even though it is desperately unattractive, as you can see in the video.
The Sustrans officer is quoted –
I made this video of Ethan riding to school as part instructional and part inspirational, so parents may gain courage and comfort in the fact that such things are possible.
Well, it is right to say that young children cycling to school in Britain is possible, but unfortunately that doesn’t get us very far when that option is far less feasible, safe and pleasant than simply pushing children into a car.
The video might be ‘inspirational’, but I can’t really seeing it inspiring many parents to let their young children out onto the roads on a bike. The impulse is to protect.
The school run is a Tragedy of the Commons, in that the problem is created by individuals acting rationally in their own self-interest, while simultaneously creating a disastrous overall outcome for the population as a whole. But these kinds of problems cannot be addressed by expecting individual people to act against their own self-interest. Without changing the physical environment, we are forced to rely upon people choosing to abandon cars spontaneously, but very few will be willing to do so when, in making that choice, they are put a disadvantage by the majority who do not.
Even if we manage to create an attractive school run by persuading a majority of people to abandon driving, that would be an inherently fragile solution, in that people are entirely free to start driving their children to school again in the future, posing risk and danger to those who don’t. Safe routes to school for walking and cycling need to designed and engineered, and made physically permanent. They won’t be achieved by stigmatising people, or appealing to their better nature, or expecting them to change their minds all by themselves.