The natural impulse to protect, and what it means for the school run

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?

David Jinks

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.

The natural impulse to protect, accommodated through the physical environment

The natural impulse to protect, accommodated through the physical environment. A route to a primary school in Assen.

Another primary school in Assen

Another primary school in Assen, where the school run by bike is made attractive and easy. Children are protected, and safe.

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 school run in Stevenage. 'Possible' for a child to cycle on this road, but how many parents would let their their children do so?

The school run in Stevenage. ‘Possible’ for a child to cycle on this road, but how many parents would let their their children do so, when the road is so hostile?

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.

This entry was posted in Car dependence, Cycling policy, Infrastructure, Safety, Space for Cycling, Subjective safety, The Netherlands. Bookmark the permalink.

54 Responses to The natural impulse to protect, and what it means for the school run

  1. Mark Hewitt says:

    There are many other factors to consider, even if we ignore cycling for the moment as that has it’s own barriers for uptake; what about walking to school? In this snippet he admits “when I were a lad I walked to school”. I’m in my 30’s and indeed in my day everyone walked to school, some over a few miles.

    So what’s the problem? There are many.
    House prices; people live further away from each other because the closer you are to the town centre often the higher the prices.
    School closures; a drop in the birth rate in the 1990’s led to a lot of school closures, the cyclical rebound that then happened didn’t lead to them opening again, so in general schools are further away.
    I feel the most important one – parents working ours, in my day having a stay at home Mum was normal, now it’s exceptional, and the hours that parents do work are ever longer, therefore do you spend an hour at each end of the day walking with little jonny, or 20 minutes in the car or your way to work? The answer is obvious.

    As the article says; there are no easy answers to this one.

    • These are all valid points, and I agree that it is complicated, but the fact is that a huge percentage of children are being driven short distances – short distances that could easily be cycled independently, certainly those over a mile, where walking (as you say) becomes more difficult. It certainly won’t be easy to address this, but there is certainly an answer lurking there somewhere.

    • Joel C says:

      I’d argue that it’s also a consequence of the “choice” agenda foisted upon parents by successive governments, whereby, parents could choose the school their kids went to, rather than their placement being dictated entirely by geography – thus the link between the local school and the pupil is broken.

      Did anyone really want “choice”? Surely people just want their kid’s school to be good, regardless of where it is?

    • Joel C says:

      Relating to school closures, there’s also been a trend to close schools and to merge into large “super” campuses, often on the edges of town (i.e. inconvenient for walking), with the old local school grounds being developed for housing. The people who built the schools in the first place weren’t daft – they built the schools in the middle of residential communities because that’s where people live.

      That’s why the solution isn’t just building good bike infrastructure – LAs need to take a holistic approach to the problem e.g. by not merging school campuses, by not selling off the playing fields to developers and by not building “enterprise” business parks and retail parks on greenfield sites next to motorway junctions (one good thing the internet might do is kill off these dinosaurs).

    • But Jinks admits that the school is only 20 minute walk away.

      To drive his son is criminal: it is violence towards his son (who doesn’t get exercise) and violence towards all other children who are prevented from cycling to school.

      We need to reframe the discourse in these terms: Let’s end motor violence.

    • Angus H says:

      Of the kids that are driven to the school mine attend, mostly they live close enough to walk but it’s because the adults are then driving on to work. Of those, most could either cycle to work, or cycle to one of the half dozen rail stations within two miles that would get them to work, or get the bus. The reasons they drive have more to do with lifestyle and economics than road danger.. they’ve already spent a fair chunk of their annual income running the car, so the rational thing to do – especially for those whose workplace is outside the Congestion Zone – is drive, rather than spend yet more money on travelcards and bikes. I doubt most of them see their own behaviour as in any way problematic, but then neither does your average smoker.

  2. Hester says:

    Not exactly on topic, but it winds me up when people say things like ‘The school run is the most pointless waste of resources ever to cause congestion’. Similar thoughts are expressed whenever the school holidays come around, taking an estimated 10% of traffic (in Cambridge, anyway) off the roads, but having a much more noticeable affect on traffic flow.

    What makes *your* journey more important than a child going to a place of education? Why isn’t *your* journey the pointless waste of resources? How much of the traffic reduction is not, in fact, the children, but actually their parents not going to work so they can be with their children?

    You may have the luxury of flexi-time or home-working, and could decide either not to be on the roads, or shift your travel. A child going to school can’t. You are much more capable of operating in the current road environment on a bike. A child isn’t.

    • Hester says:

      Sorry, ran out of characters.

      Anyway, when I know that I have able colleagues who drive to work 2 miles along the same route that I cycle, I know it’s not parents trying to protect their children that I blame for congestion.

    • Angus H says:

      Indeed – and this is the problem London’s Quietway network faces, in the absence of adopting filtered permeability as a core element. Many routes which are quiet at 10am or on weekends are too busy at 8:45am for a child to cycle. School children can’t choose to wait until the rush hour is over.

    • “You are much more capable of operating in the current road environment on a bike. A child isn’t.” – That’s kind of the point of every single one of these aseasyasridingabike posts, isn’t it? Doesn’t make the school run any *less* of a pointless waste of resources that it is the rational choice of each parent individually. That’s just the definition of ‘Tragedy of the Commons’. So we should do something about it, like, change ‘the current road environment’.

  3. Ian says:

    When I were a lad (and I am from Yorkshire, so the syntax is allowed) we walked or cycled to school, 3 miles each way, with no parents at all, from about 7 years old, without any special provision of walking or cycling routes. In Switzerland kids that age walk, use the tram, or cycle, quite happily. So maybe there’s more going on than just the physical safety issue. we certainly seem to do an impressive level of paranoia now about child safety, and in the process make many of them fat and sick.

    • In the same way children arent even allowed to ‘play out’ any more. They spend their lives being driven from one organised activity to another rather than just mucking about with their mates.

    • Chris says:

      I think this is the really big thing that people are missing in this whole debate.

      Our eldest two (aged 10 & 8) walk to school some days (1 mile) unaccompanied, and the reaction from other parents ranges from mild surprise to apparently thinking we might as well have wrapped them up in a big bow and delivered them to any one of the many, many paedophiles that the tabloid press would have us believe inhabit every other house between us and the school!

      If you accept that parents are accompanying their kids to school because they’re scared to let them go unaccompanied in general, rather than because they’re specifically scared to let them cycle, then you come on to the second part of the problem….

      With the large majority of families now having both parents working (unlike when I was growing up in the Seventies), I think there it is a flawed assumption to assume that (m)any parents are doing the school run in isolation. The school run itself might well only be a mile, but if the parent drops the kids off and then carries on for another 10-20 miles to get to work, that journey needs to be considered as a whole. People often don’t have the time to cycle/walk their kids to school, then cycle/walk home to pick up the car, to go on to work, to say nothing of possibly having to get changed if they’ve been rained on during the school run.

      Of course, if there was a nice, safe cycle infrastructure, that would make it easier for kids to cycle to school, but that’s almost a secondary thing until you get to the point of parents being happy to let their kids go anywhere without them via any form of transportation.

      The above, for reference, comes from someone who lived in suburban Surrey with a pretty safe walking route to the infant school (although we wouldn’t let the kids go unaccompanied there, as they’re 6 at most!) and a really nice, safe route to the junior school. Our kids are free to cycle if they wish, but generally prefer to walk (although this may change now my eldest has taken delivery of her sparkly new Islabike for her birthday!) as they tend to just meander along with friends going in the same direction, chattering away. Cycling removes this, and most of the time when they have taken the bikes, they actually end up pushing them along chattering away to their mates anyway! Personally, I don’t really care whether they cycle or walk. The key thing is that they’re not being driven.

  4. I know of a parent that drives their child to school. They live 400m away.

  5. It’s nice to find a complicated problem with a simple solution. Safe pleasant infrastructure would solve it all.

  6. Completely agree with the comment above: why not walk to school? If you’ve got time to consider cycling. unless it’s much further than a mile, a 10 year old could walk, surely? Infrastructure for safe cycling is the best solution, but attitudes need to change too. Increasingly, it’s considered ‘weird’ to walk your kids any distance. If it’s wet, get them in rainsuits and wellies; or snowsuits if it’s cold. Let them be outside! It’s a much better preparation for a day of sitting down in a classroom, and it’s a great way to let off steam at the end of the school day too! But also: the world is already stacked against working parents. If you need to drive to school in order to the get to work, that should be OK. Just don’t drive a massive car round tiny streets to ‘protect your kids’. You just endanger other people’s kids.

  7. Nico (@NicoVel0) says:

    The school run is just ridiculous in the UK. I have a neighbour who is an actor, so staying home for long stretches of time. He still drives his son to school, which is a full 10 minutes away on foot.

    Effectively the roads are designed so that kids are under house arrest:

    • Hester says:

      Would he make the same kind of journey on his own on foot? Or would he take the car, assuming he could park? Or possibly not even assuming that: it seems common to mentally negate to time taken to park and walk from any given journey.

      I suspect anyone who would make that kind of isolated journey by car just isn’t thinking in terms of other transport. School run is a red herring in these cases. Fixing the transport assumptions of the nation is the issue.

      • Hester says:

        Or, to put it another way, the closest pub to my workplace is a 10-15 minute walk. The most direct route there is walking or cycling. You have to travel much further by car to get there, but it’s marginally quicker. If we go for a meal at lunch, by the time people are done faffing with their keys, they car junk, gathering together the group for a carshare, I normally arrive at about the same time on foot, and I’m independent of either giving or receiving lifts if I need to get back for a specfic time.

        If it’s a nice day, I have had some traction with: “Hey! It’s a nice day! Why don’t we walk through the country park?” Some people will take this up, but never everybody. It’s rare anyone will suggest walking if I don’t. If it’s not a nice day people are astounded by the suggestion that I have walked. It’s just not in their mental map of transport. Safety/school run not an issue.

  8. No brainer, make the roads in towns 20mph and really hard to use by car. Make beautiful paths and cycle paths. The only way to reverse dependence on cars is to make them bloody hard to use. Henry Ford has alot to answer for.
    If you Ofsted inspected where we live it would be a big FAIL. The quality of life in the UK for kids sucks.

    • Anna Wavey says:

      the road I live on is a 20mph road because of a nearby school which even has speed bumps to “slow” people down,and it really makes very little difference to the speed any of the traffic takes driving down it, most school run vehicles 4×4/people carrier things can sail over the speed bumps quite easily anyway, but those cars that do slow down for them, simply treat the bits in between as an excuse to speed up again.

      if Im on my bike as Im only starting off Im probably just warming up heading towards 15mph max, but it feels no different to being on a 30mph road as cars are going past you that quickly still, the only difference really is the amount of traffic compared to a normal 30mph road. and its worse if they are heading towards you because the way the road is narrowed being a residential area, they all tend to drive straight at you, and them dropping their kids off at school in time is the only and most important thing they are focussed on doing and they will punish pass you, force you out of the way, or do crazy things like drive up the pavement just to get around you, literally just to save a few seconds, so 20mph zones dont really calm people down or make the route more conducive to getting kids out of cars IME

      and yep you dont see many of the kids cycle to the school, probably about 1/4 who are localish walk, the rest are all dropped off in cars, the vast majority of which are then all driven straight to the nearest supermarket. thats one thing about the schoolrun its easy to overlook, people normalise it because its part of the days worth of chores, drop the kids off, go do the shopping, drop off the dry cleaning, pick up a parcel, pick the kids up go shopping etc etc so whilst the school parts shouldnt need a car, other parts of their daily life they might feel they have to have a car, so its not an individual journey in isolation and the solution really shouldnt be to treat it in isolation.

  9. I’m disturbed by the trend of comments on this piece. How keen everyone is to avoid the obvious. The evidence that the main driver of this problem is parental anxiety over road safety – *reasonable* parental anxiety over road safety – is *everywhere*. And as if we needed it pointing out, there it is in a letter from a transport professional.

    How can we stop thinking of this problem in terms of *anything other than* the solution that has been shown to work?

    Talking about school choice as a factor in the school run is of unclear importance to secondary schools and irrelevant to primary schools: increased school choice kicks in for secondary. The relevant factor with primary schools stares you in the face. But facing it means *doing something different with the physical environment*.

    Another example of avoiding the obvious.

    That Avon and Somerset Police hand out free hi-viz to school children, is of a piece with our preparedness to do *anything* to avoid addressing the physical environment. I wrote to Avon and Somerset Police asking for an explanation of their policy, pointing out that such a policy contributes to the Tragedy of the Commons by discouraging walking, and might also have a similar tragedy of the commons effect by leading to those not equipped being run down by drivers with increasing expectations of pedestrians in hi-viz. What thinking or research leads you to think handing out free hi-viz to pedestrians is a useful way to address a problem like road-safety? The reply I got back takes for granted that there couldn’t be any other way to address it:

    Dear Mr Robjant,

    I have been asked to respond to your recent email.

    Avon and Somerset Police Community Trust is a charity that works independently from the Avon and Somerset Constabulary. It has its independent board of Trustees who make awards to many community projects and award high viz waistcoats to primary school children as part of a broader road safety scheme. This is in an effort to increase road safety for young people.

    Although the Trust has not carried out specific research in this area, more general research has shown that high visibility clothing is effective at improving drivers’ awareness of the presence of pedestrians, runners and cyclists. If drivers are aware of other road users just a fraction of a second earlier then they can take evasive action that can prevent an accident. In addition the donation of the high viz clothing is, where possible, part of a wider road safety education package delivered to young people in an effort to increase their knowledge in this area and keep them safe on our roads. A general view would be that road safety education and increased road safety for young people would ultimately outweigh a negative view.

    I hope this helps with your query, if you would like any further information regarding the Police Community Trust please do not hesitate to contact me.

    Kind regards,
    Tracey Clegg
    Business Liaison Manager/Trust Manager|HQ Portishead
    Tel: 01275 816583 Fax: 01275 816129
    If interested in the problem of road safety the police trust *should* be investigating and advising about dangerous road layouts, as municipal officials do in the Netherlands. When the police are handing out Hi-Viz to primary school children your transport system is *institutionalised* insanity, or as Mark correctly puts it, a Tragedy of the Commons. Again, handing out hi-viz looks like a reasonable response to the problem *as assumed and framed*, once the obvious problem has been ruled out of consideration at the start. And for the individual force, for the individual schools, perhaps even for the individual children, donning hi-viz to walk to school is a perfectly reasonable safety measure. But for the commons…… One commons effect of requiring pedestrian hi-viz is to discourage walking, and the next stage of the developing tragedy of the commons is that in order for the driver to notice them among all the hi-viz, the adults will be expected to wear Hi-Viz too, and across the country.

    By stages *starting from the assumption that priority must be given to motor vehicles in the road layout* the pedestrian is being turned into a exercise-obsessed danger flirt – someone simultaneously ‘virtuous’, poor and contemptible, whose behaviour – and lack of hi-viz – is suicide.

    • Nico (@NicoVel0) says:

      “more general research has shown that high visibility clothing is effective at improving drivers’ awareness of the presence of pedestrians, runners and cyclists”citation needed

      • Alan says:
        • Visibility aid prevalence is low among injured bicyclists.
        • In daylight, white or light upper body clothing decreased the odds of a bicyclist-motor vehicle crash.
        • In the dark, red/orange/yellow upper body clothing and tail lights increased the odds of a bicyclist-motor vehicle crash.
        • Using multiple visibility aids is associated with reduced odds of severe injury in bicyclists”
        The last two points are particularly interesting

        • That is a Canadian study.
          Rather than emulating North Americans, notoriously uncivilised as far as urban transport is concerned, we should study North European examples, where no-one wears hi-viz, and cycling is much safer.

        • michael says:

          I’d call that an exercise in victim-blaming, to be honest.

        • Alan, on your third highlight, there might be a typo. But if ‘red/orange/yellow upper body clothing and tail lights increased the odds of a bicyclist-motor vehicle crash’ what would explain that? The lycra effect, where some motorists drive at anyone displaying the insignia of the despised out-group?

          Points 1 and 4 might simply correlate possession of kit with experience levels, which is somewhat unsurprising and only tells us what we already know: expensive safety gear is a barrier to entry, and new entrants have a lot less of it. Was the study controlled for this effect in any way?

          The bath study showed no effect of reducing dangerous passes, even in daylight:
          Dangerous passes are a large component of subjective safety, and giving out hi-viz to all road users *other than drivers* discourages all uses of roads other than driving on them.

          Hi-Viz proponents feel on safer ground when they apply their arguments to cyclists because an *individual* cyclist *in the UK* is highly likely to see acquiring this stuff as a person safety gain. Feel free to inspect my wardrobe. But please also look at the reductio ad absurdum of this individual strategy as applied to the common: a world where no one walks except in flourescent yellow with scotchlite trimmings is a world where the demographc of walking is reduced to the current demographic of cycling.

          Do we want that? No. Then remove the danger at source and don’t start with PPE.

          • david_uwi says:

            The study is actually saying that the use of lights (on a bike) at night increases the risk of getting hit. They put it down to confused distance perception of drivers. I guess they are suggesting that a small bike light close up could be interpreted as a much bigger light further away. Interesting finding.

              • But I take it the explanatory hypothesis is speculation and not, I suppose, a finding.

              • I’m suspicious of the anecdote but will drop one anyway, since the study invites speculative hypotheses and mine may be no more peculiar than hypothesising a small=far away confusion (do Canadian cyclists have flashing LED taillights? What do the drivers thing it is, a distant lighthouse on occluded phase? A landing plane?).

                My Impression: I am much better treated by other road users when they cannot tell that the vehicle is a bicycle. I have not yet taken this devious hypothesis to its logical conclusion in all respects, but being mistaken for a motorcycle through brightness of lamp and road positioning seems particularly advantageous, as compared to both daylight, and average bike lighting kit.

    • Another thing the police trust could be doing: making some noise about the dangerous drivers with multiple points on their licences that magistrates allow back on to the roads because driving is a ‘necessity’. Why is driving a ‘necessity’? Because of all the dangerous drivers on the roads. A Tragedy of the Commons.

    • Chris says:

      Where is this obvious evidence that the main driver is parental anxiety over road safety, reasonable or otherwise? How many parents of school-aged children have you actually spoken to about this?

      As I said earlier, our two eldest kids walk the mile to and from school on their own on a fairly regular basis (and walk it with my wife the rest of the time), and the almost universal expressions of surprise from other parents are, in my experience, at most maybe 20% based on concerns over risks from vehicles on the road.

      I would accept that not all parents have the same route of quiet backstreets with decent pavements the whole way that we have that allow them to walk or cycle safely, but even so, the vast majority of the concerns I’ve heard expressed by other parents are focused on parental anxiety about being separated from their kids, full stop. They’re more worried about the overblown risk of strangers accosting them than they are people knocking them over.

      Taking that a step further, at the top of our road there is a country park with a stream running through it, lots of grass and lots of clumps of woodland. It’s really nice. It’s exactly the sort of place that I and my friends would’ve spent hours on end playing in during the holidays when we were primary school kids in the Seventies, but nowadays, you’ll never see pre-teen kids there on their own, even though there is absolutely zero risk to them from any sort of vehicle other than the occasional pushbike.

      It’s a sad indictment of modern society, but I fear that you could have the best cycling infrastructure on the face of the planet, but until you can persuade parents that their kid isn’t going to become the next Maddie McCann the second they let them out of their sight, you’re not going to see that infrastructure heavily used by kids on their own, and many working parents just don’t have the time to take their kids to school, turn round, go back home and pick up the car (which many of them can’t get to work without).

      • “Where is this obvious evidence that the main driver is parental anxiety over road safety, reasonable or otherwise?”

        The National Travel Survey, Table 0616. Traffic danger is consistently the predominant reason for accompanying children to school, given as a reason in ~50% of all cases.

        • Chris says:

          Looking at that table, bear in mind that the question asked wasn’t “pick one reason” or “pick the most important reason”. It was “pick all the reasons”.

          As you rightly say, between around 50% of people state traffic danger as a reason for not letting their kids go to school unaccompanied, but around 35% also quote fear of assault or molestation, and another 10% or so quote fear of bullying.

          Now, we don’t know how many people quoted two or more of these, but in the worst case scenario, you could give those 50% of people quoting traffic danger as a reason a completely perfect segregated bike lane all the way to the school and only see a 5% increase in kids being allowed to go to school unaccompanied.

          • The predominant reason is the one to tackle, no? It might even be the case that less dominant reasons are related, in various ways, to the dominant one. If the public realm is largely emptied of ordinary pedestrians by fear of traffic, any remaining pedestrians you may encounter there are ipso facto suspicious. There is also the phenomenon that house-bound individuals have an exaggerated fear of crime, which is likely to be replocated among car-bound individuals. And those fears do actually have an effect in conceding public space to crime. Since the road layout is the root cause of all this malaise, one is not to be misunderstood in quoting FDR, nonetheless one thing we have to fear is, fear itself – fear spread by the growth of the car. Which takes us back to the Tragedy of the Commons.

            • Chris says:

              You are assuming that people think rationally at all times when it comes to their kids’ safety. They don’t.

              You could give every single kid in the country a completely traffic free route to school, but that would have absolutely no impact whatsoever on the 35% of people who won’t let their kids go to school alone because they’re fear their child will be assaulted or abducted.

              There were 532 cases of child abduction (attempted or successful) reported to the police in England & Wales in 2011/12, roughly half of which were at the hands of strangers. The chances of someone trying to abduct your child on the way to school is absolutely tiny, yet still 35% of respondents gave this as a reason for not letting their kids go to school unaccompanied. If you try to tell them that the risk is tiny, they’ll probably just say that this is because people don’t let kids out on their own any more, so the paedos don’t have a chance to get at them, so it’s something of a Catch 22 argument to even try and win in the first place!

              Under normal circumstances, you’d be absolutely right to say you should address the biggest factor first, but when the second-biggest factor is that close behind and essentially irrational, you’re going to struggle to justify the investment required for the cycling infrastructure, as it’s easy for people to point to the number of people who still wouldn’t let their kids go out on their own to question the viability of the project from day one.

              My fear is that we could make driving to school much more difficult, and even if we spend lots of money on a good new cycling infrastructure to get to schools, you’d just end up with parents dragging their kids into the car even earlier to schlep through even bigger traffic jams to get them to school on time, and that really doesn’t help anyone!

              If you want to champion a greater investment in cycling infrastructure, I’d suggest that too and from schools (other than by coincidence) shouldn’t have any particular focus. Start by getting it to parks, shopping centres, leisure centres, office complexes and other places where adults go, either with their kids or without them, and once you’ve started to change adult mindsets about where and when they can cycle with their kids, you could move on to schools. Who knows… The above might even reduce general road traffic to the level where people can cycle their kids to school and still have time to get to work afterwards, thus getting round the irrational “stranger danger” fear.

              • I make no assumptions about the rationality of the Daily Mail or ‘stranger danger’. Instead I observe that the main fear for your child does happen to be perfectly rational, and is on that account something we can do something about, namely, fear of motor traffic.
                So why this odd search for something to do, *other than* the obvious?

                Evidence from other countries is that doing something about fear of motor traffic, by removing it and/or prioritising other modes of transport, has a pronounced effect on choices, thus confirming that choices in this area are minimally rational. Fear of traffic is rational, and removal of that fear produces a rational response, *whatever* anyone says in the Daily Mail, newspaper of the fear.

                “My fear is that we could make driving to school much more difficult, and even if we spend lots of money on a good new cycling infrastructure to get to schools, you’d just end up with parents dragging their kids into the car even earlier to schlep through even bigger traffic jams to get them to school on time, and that really doesn’t help anyone!”

                You have an anxious and inaccurate idea of the extent to which the Daily Mail has managed to re-programme the human genome, and you have the wrong idea if you think the blogged argument for facilitating cycling comes to the same thing as punishing motorists. Here’s making life difficult for motorists:

              • Chris says:


                Have you actually read what I’ve written?

                You’re not observing any fear for my child, whether rational or otherwise. The eldest two frequently go to and from school under their own steam.

                As for whether I’m over estimating the Daily Wail factor, go and look at the table referred to above for yourself. I’m not estimating at all; I’m taking the 35% shown in that. Putting in a cycle infrastructure will do very little to impact on that irrational fear, and until you do find a way to impact on it, no provision of better cycling facilities can deliver anything like the optimum results desired of it.

              • I am sorry to have spread misunderstanding. Perhaps I might better have conveyed what I meant by ‘the main fear for your child’ with the more precise ‘the main fear for one’s child’, but I wrongly took it from the context of the discussion of that it would be clear we were both addressing a widespread phenomenon connected with the school run- it didn’t occur to me you would think I was making claims about your parenting. Sorry. As to the other point, I’ve confined myself to pointing out that 50 is a rather bigger number than 35, and that all kinds of fears relate to occupancy of the public realm which has, as I pointed out, other historical causes – causes related to that 50%. I just don’t see why you don’t think removing the biggest confessed and historical cause of the problem wouldn’t be an effective way to address the problem.

              • Chris says:

                Misunderstanding now clear, thanks!

                With regards to the remainder, it’s not that I don’t think it would be good to address the issue of infrastructure, I just think that the 30-35% will prove immune to its joys as long as they’re still hung up on stranger danger.

                If the aim of the exercise is to get more kids (and people of all ages) cycling, then I’m inclined to think that more success could be had targeting the infrastructure serving places that kids attend with their families in leisure time rather than schools.

          • paul gannon says:

            What proportion answered ‘yes’ to the ‘are you a lazy lump?’ reason for not walking their children to school?

            • You think, in countries where Children are walked to school fewer parents are ‘lazy lumps?’ Dang it, I walked *myself* to school, even primary school. Why would my parents let loose upon the world such a terrible danger, aged 6? Because lucky for me, I had a safe traffic-free route. The only time I was subjected to danger from cars was in the school car-park.

    • Joel C says:

      I’m not sure why you’re “disturbed” – I think my point about school campuses merging together has some merit. If the local school stops being “local” – for reasons of cost, expediency, greed etc. – then the likelihood of children actively travelling to school decreases. This is not to minimise the (as you say, rational) safety fears of parents, but it is a factor amongst many others. I’m all for changing the physical environment absolutely, but there are greater forces at work other than the design of streets.

  10. rdrf says:

    On the evidence (or rather lack of it) for the effectiveness of hi-viz, do take a look at . I think if anybody could find out from the lady in Avon and Somerset exactly what “research” she has in mind that would be helpful – do post it here and we can subject it to consideration.

    On schools, as many of your posters have indicated, the possibility is of a one mile walk. It is not taken, not because of inadequate walking infrastructure, but because driving has been made cheap and convenient. And socially acceptable.

    I have worked with colleagues on school travel planning for some years, and my conclusion is that it just has to be made more difficult to park (briefly) near schools for all but special cases. Throw in a general motor traffic reduction programme nationally, law enforcement, reduced speeds, and yes, to some extent engineering to facilitate cycling and walking, and you’re there.

    I think there is a serious issue here about “subjective safety”. For years we quoted the seminal text “One False Move” by Adams, Hillman and Whitelegg, saying that parents fear of motor traffic was the key reason for increasingly limiting children’s independent mobility. But now, some of the answer given will be relating to fear of child molestation and abduction. So “subjective” feelings are filtered through ideology, in this case a Daily Mail -type culture of fear scaring people into keeping themselves and their loved ones close to them in a capsule, whether at home or on the road.

    • Avon and Somerset Police Trust have yet to reply to my enquires as to why the prioritise PPE over other methods of addressing danger to children. Note then, that Avon and Somerset Police *have announced publicly that that they will not be enforcing the new 20mph speed limits in Bristol*.

      • Or, to put it more accurately and generously, they plan to devote roughly the same concentration on enforcing the 20mph limit as they do with any other limit: “Enforcement will not be routine but will be intelligence-led and where there is evidence of clear and excessive offending, accompanied by an aggravating factor. Avon and Somerset Constabulary may consider enforcement where appropriate”. Speeding then is not necessarily excessive speed, and those who do it without an “aggravating factor” can be pretty sure of not being subject to the law. No mention of speed cameras either. The wheeze being, of course, that speed cameras are usually done on the basis of a ‘partnership’, and the force wants to ensure that costs for traffic policing don’t end up on their books.

  11. Jitensha Oni says:

    The problem with some arguments in the comment is that they appear to assume that the kids won’t be accompanied by their parents to school. This is not the case for the 3 primary schools within a couple of km of me (one of which my kids attended – I’m slightly ashamed to say that we walked with them there, but at least we didn’t drive). If the parent can spare the time to drive, given the queues, they can spare the time to cycle with their charges (and this is what the Sustrans guy is doing). And that kind of trashes the paedophile argument. So one could conclude that the parents are too scared to cycle, either because of safety issues, or as rdrf says, it risks social exclusion.

    On the other hand secondary school kids are much more likely to travel independently. There are a few who cycle to the schools round me, but very very few. At one secondary nearby whose home time my own cycle home often coincides with, and where parents picking up in cars are rare, the kids nearly all walk – the road outside (which isn’t traffic-free), can be utter chaos with schoolkids miling around. But maybe only 1 in 50 cycles, and in fact most of those are actually wheeling their bikes having a natter with their pals.

    So what surveys or theories say may not actually completely match the reality of what happens in all cases. My interpretation of what I observe is that for primary schools it is the parents that are too scared to cycle, and for secondary schools parents ban their kids from cycling so they conform with expectation. They seem not to be too worried about the random walks that their broods are doing (as kids do), just as long as they don’t cycle. For the record my kids used school buses to get to their secondaries, but that was some years ago.

    PS I know the roads used by the pair in the Sustrans video. If you wanted to pick somewhere to live in the Borough that maximised the distance to school but minimised the amount of time on busy roads, this is it. Most people don’t have that luxury. Still, it’s rather sad that the Sustrans guy doesn’t come across any other parents/kids on their bikes on his way to school.

    PPS Hester’s point about prioritising kids’ journeys over people going to work is very interesting. There is a case to be made for phasing traveling and opening hours of schools and businesses, but if there were more people on bikes, and judiciiously applied infrastructure and speed limits, the issue would I think, largely evaporate. But to get this up and running, what is needed is encouragement from significant numbers of role models, and this is not forthcoming.

    • Chris says:

      It may be different where you live, but must of the people I know around here who drive their kids to school do so on their way to work. They simply don’t have the luxury of cycling there and then cycling home again before going to work.

      Having said that, the picture here is also rather complicated by Surrey annoyingly having separate Infant and Junior schools, so a fair few people also have to shuttle kids very rapidly between two schools a couple of miles apart.

      Whatever the reasons, very few people I know drive their kids to school and then drive home again.

      • That a parent engaged in full-time child-care is rarer in the UK than Germany or the Netherlands would be a factor here. On the other hand it would be a bit odd to imagine a situation in which safe provision for cycling were widespread, and yet where the working parent, having got the child to school in a bakfiets or cycling alongside, could not then use that safe provision to get to work as well. We don’t have to imagine the bike being used in an entirely different way to the car, as a “luxury” add-on, do we?

        P.S. I’ve spotted a wandering negative in my last – I meant to say: I just don’t see why you think removing the biggest confessed and historical cause of the [school run] problem wouldn’t be an effective way to address the problem.

        • Chris says:

          I’m sure some could, but many more, on the other hand, really can’t.

          Luckily for me, my wife doesn’t work at the moment, so I have the luxury of being able to cycle to work, but at 15 miles each way it takes me a little over an hour each way! Of course this is at the extreme end of things, but even people working 5 or 6 miles from their kid’s school are going to struggle to get to work in time on a bike.

          Anyway, I’ve got to be up at 6:30 for my ride in tomorrow, so at this point, interesting though the discussion is, I’m afraid I’m off to bed!

  12. Julia says:

    Whether walking to school is dangerous or not, isn’t it important that children learn how to assess risk and act accordingly? At what age is it ‘safe’ to let children out on their own – 10, 15, 18? Do you want your children going off to university without being able to cross a road safely – or, for that matter, not being able to tell if they’re being followed or had their drink spiked or are standing too close to the edge of the cliff?

  13. Important to acknowledge that you also need to ensure that all of the route is separated from too many cars or a car traveling too fast, IE no weak links in the chain. My sister would probably be allowed to cycle to school on her own, she’s 11 and a half BTW, if she could cross a 2 lane arterial road with about 18 thousand cars per day, safely, possibly at a traffic signal, otherwise at a low speed crossing, 30 km/h, with a median refuge and maybe amber flashing lights, and cross a collector road with about 2500-4000 cars per day, probably with just a low speed crossing, possibly with priority over motor traffic, otherwise with a median refuge and good sightlines.

    It’s all it would really take, the rest of the trip is done either on extremely low volume roads where she is almost certain to never encounter another car, and certainly not one driving faster than 30 already, or on a completely separate path already away from cars, not even paralleling their route just on a sidepath. It’s well lit with no blind corners, we don’t have a problem with crime in my neighbourhood, nothing really is preventing my sister from cycling on her own to school safely except for two simple crossings (though surfacing about 160 metres of a dirt trail with asphalt would be nice) that in all honesty are actually really simple to fix, and wouldn’t even take space away from cars anyway.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.