The London Cycling Campaign (LCC) Policy Forum organised a seminar in March at City Hall aimed at facilitating the discussion over active travel to school. There is a pressing need to evaluate the effects such an unsuitable environment have on children and what can be done about it.
Green Party Member of the London Assembly, Caroline Russell was originally billed as the host but a bad cold prevented her so LCC Vice chair, Amy Foster led the proceedings. There were about 30 participants including parents, council school officers, cycling officers and cycling campaigners. Guest speakers making the case for building a better environment for all and specifically children were Dr Adrian Davis, Clare Rogers and Dan Kelly. Dr Rachel Aldred kindly providing live tweeting for the event. You can look it up by searching #HealthySchoolStreets.
The discussion had four clear aims:
- Understand the successes and limitations
- Disseminate data and evidence
- Provide networking space
- Share ideas for effective campaigning
Jumping up and down is rather important
First up was active travel champion Dr Adrian Davies from Bristol University who started by stating that children should be free from disease and that ‘jumping up and down’ was rather important in order to achieve that. As shown by a report from the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition & Physical Activity, he reminded the audience that physical activity amongst 5-18 years old had reduced drastically in the past 30 years. Also, evidence shows time and time again that cycling and walking reduced mortality by 10% in adults. So why are policy makers not joining the dots?
Dr Davies described how the Peach Project from Bristol University has shown how activity habits taken up as children last throughout a lifespan as well as throughout the day. If you start your school day by a walk or a short cycle ride to class, he added, it is better than having to digest your cornflakes sitting at the back of a car. Furthermore there is a link between more physical activity and enhanced academic attainment. Yet, many parents choose to drive their children to school.
The big landmark study from the Policy Studies Institute (PSI Report) looked at independent mobility and found that this has all but disappeared. This has great consequences as evidence shows a ‘startling correlation between children’s well-being and their freedom to travel and play in their local neighbourhood without adult supervision”. A slide shown by Clare Rogers illustrated this point further. George was walking up to six miles by himself at the age of eight in 1919, whilst his great grandson is today only allowed to walk to the end of his street at the same age. How did we get there? Why did we let our roads become a no-go area for children? How did we allow them to develop disease such as obesity and diabetes?
Obesity in children
Local resident and gentle force behind Better Streets for Enfield, Clare Rogers spoke next and shared her experience in reclaiming the streets in her local area. As a parent, she wanted nothing else than any other parents: do right by her children and give them a safe environment to play outside and go to school. Clare decided to fight that loss of freedom resulting from “consecutive policies that led to children being advised to be off the road”. Freedom to be children and to grow into independent adults. There are plenty of data showing the correlation between the lack of activity and a decrease in well-being. The latest government statistics show that one in three children in Year 6 are obese or overweight. One. In. Three. We are talking about 10 years old.
That is simply shocking. And yet the focus always seems to be on the diet. The ‘solutions’ put forwards often consist of measures against those who sell or provide food, deemed unsuitable, or a vilification of parents and their ‘alleged’ ineptitude to cook healthy meals. The environment in which children live are of crucial importance but rarely get addressed in this debate. There is also an increase in prevalence of obesity in children by level of deprivation.
Exercising vigorously at least once a day is key to a long lasting good health and this could be so easily achieved by having an active journey to school, regardless of your economic background. Clare’s experience when campaigning for better streets also shows that there was a bigger consensus around a ‘safety for all approach’ rather than simply focusing on a specific mode of transport.
When is the next Play Street, Sir?
Dan Kelly summed up what he learnt when campaigning for safer roads to school in his local area of Walthamstow as part of Mini Holland in Waltham Forest. The motorised traffic dropped from 1,500 vehicles to 200 once a permeability scheme was successfully implemented outside his children’ school. This has made the roads considerably safer. But this was a long and tedious process.
They started by engaging with neighbours about traffic, highlighting that children did not play out in the street. Dan recommended producing some visual illustrations of what it could be in order to capture people’s imagination. Communication also involved drop-ins sessions and stalls at the school fair. These were opportunities to directly engage with people and create a rapport that often converged towards the same aim: better streets for children means better streets for all.
Data were collected, analysed and used in these discussions, people were encouraged to contribute, asked what were the top changes they would want to see. Residents were invited to co-design sessions on the proposals. Children also fully participated. There is a lot to be said about harvesting the determination of children and their pester power. Such involvement could be linked to mini school projects around maths, data collection, design and gardening. In Walthamstow, the children were involved in looking after the plants when planters were used as permeability filters. Dan reminisced a time when he did a presentation during a morning school assembly and how the children asked: “When is the next Play Street, Sir?”.
Smaller schemes such as School Streets are a good way to remove danger from the roads in the immediate vicinity of schools. These consist of timed closures on the main access road to a school, at pick-up and drop off times. School Streets schemes work with either a physical barrier such as a collapsible bollard or remote plate recognition cameras. Examples in Camden and elsewhere have shown that the initial reluctance disappeared and the schemes are popular and effective in enabling active travel. This can lead to permanent change, real behaviour changes, from the family unit to the whole local community.
The road to safe streets is – incredibly – full of obstacles. Whoever attempts to change the statu-quo will invariably come across some degree of opposition and things will drag in time. Dan and his fellow campaigners used social media and meetings but also traditional media. Articles in the local press reasserting the reason why those changes are necessary, and showing who will benefit. People have to be prepared to be in the spotlight.
During the Q&A session that followed, some suggestions were made by people in the audience. Schools in London should start by making sure they are STARS accredited. This opens up doors to funding and further advice. Get in touch with the Council School Officer. Schools should update their travel plans regularly and make it available publicly on their website. So for instance, when a bikeability officer comes to a school to work with the children, he or she can adapt the training to the routes relevant to the children and their family. Parents, communities around schools and neighbourhoods need to start organising themselves, grab a clipboard and engage with each other.
Someone suggested that perhaps headteachers are less likely to spend time working on a safer environment around their school because OFSTED do not measure it. It would make sense to include this in their reports, given what we know about the correlation between active travel and educational attainment.
There is a need for centralising the relevant information as this would be useful for parents and residents who are looking to make their local areas safer for all.
Attendees generally left feeling hopeful for the future. The examples shared by the speakers reasserted the idea that it is possible. With the focus on removing danger from our streets and placing children at the heart of spatial planning and urban development, it will work for everyone. How can it not be? Who would oppose living longer and in good health?