17 August 2009

The school run and sedentary culture

It is traditional for we grown-ups to hark back to our school days with tales of the travails we endured in the long slog to the school gate, with fictitious barefoot trudges through snow-storms often proving popular as years of re-telling amplified the discomfort for dramatic effect. Getting to and from school was often a major source of exercise for students, particularly ones like me who cycled to school but assiduously avoided playing sports whenever possible.

In recent years it has become apparent that changing patterns of school attendance and the increasing prevalence of the parental ‘school run’ – driving your kids to school – have significantly reduced the percentage of children travelling to school under their own steam. Aside from the obvious implications this has for the physical fitness of young New Zealanders, it also represents an unfortunate impingement on a valuable youth tradition – the important nurturing of independence and self-reliance.

The Ministry of Transport has released a paper detailing some of the ways in which New Zealanders use various modes of transport. The June 2009 document, How New Zealanders Travel, shows just how dramatic the change in school transport has been over the past two decades. The table below illustrates the change for primary school age children (age 5-12); each column totals 100% of the survey sample but I have omitted some rows with small totals (‘walk and bus’, ‘passenger and bus’, ‘walk and passenger’ and ‘other’) to keep things simple.

Primary school children – travel from home to school

 

1989/90

1997/98

2003-07

2004-08

Walk (only)

42%

30%

26%

25%

Passenger (only)

31%

45%

55%

56%

Bicycle

12%

7%

5%

4%

Bus (only)

7%

7%

6%

5%

A similar picture is shown by the figures for secondary school students, although the onset of driving licences from age 15 onwards results in a wider variety of transport options. As there are fewer high schools dotted around our cities and towns, students are also more likely to travel to school by a combination of walking and buses. Again, some minor modes of transport have been omitted.

Secondary school age – travel from home to school

 

1989/90

1997/98

2003-07

2004-08

Walk

26%

19%

27%

26%

Passenger

20%

32%

33%

35%

Bicycle

19%

11%

5%

5%

Bus

9%

7%

6%

5%

Driver

4%

7%

5%

4%

Bus & walk

18%

16%

14%

16%

What does this tell us about how young New Zealanders get to school, and what are the possible implications of changes in transport methods over the past 20 years? Let’s examine each of the transport modes in turn.

Walking – While the percentage of secondary students walking to school has remained relatively constant since 1989/90, there has been a sharp decline in the percentage of primary school children walking to school: from 42 percent in 1989/90 to only 25 percent in 2004-08.

Passenger – The decrease in walking to school amongst primary-age children has been matched with a sharp increase in the percentage of students being driven to school: from 31 percent in 1989/90 to a whopping 56 percent in 2004-08. Secondary school students are also substantially more likely to be driven to school, with the percentage increasing from 20 percent in 1989/90 to 35 percent in 2004-08.

Bicycle – There has been a dramatic decline in the percentage of primary and secondary students cycling to school, with the figures dropping from 12 to 4 percent for primary children and 19 to 5 percent for secondary students.

Bus – The percentage of students travelling to school by bus has also decreased, but by a smaller degree than walking or cycling. While there was a small decline for primary children (from 7 percent to 5 percent), the decline for secondary students was larger, going from 9 percent to 5 percent.

Why have things changed?

One key factor could be the loosening of controls over school zoning and the ability of parents to secure places in desirable schools for their children despite not living close by. Increasingly, children are attending schools further from their homes, which makes walking and cycling harder and makes it less likely that public transport alternatives will be available. As modern lifestyles become busier, some parents may well have found that driving their children to school makes better use of the scarce time available on weekday mornings, and permits them to spend more time with their children, even if it is within the confines of a car. Some parents may also worry that roads are busier and too dangerous for their children to walk or cycle to school (a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one). Lastly, a minority of parents may feel that it’s safer for their children to be driven to school, despite New Zealand streets being remarkably safe in international terms.

What are the implications?

For starters, the growing prevalence of the ‘school run’ has major implications for traffic congestion and vehicular pollution in our major cities. The morning peak time for school drop-offs is a particular concern as it coincides with the morning rush-hour; the afternoon period is less of a concern as it falls about 90 minutes before most people finish work. The most efficient way to get students to school is for them to walk or cycle to nearby schools, or for public transport to bring them to school if they live further afield.

It also means that young people, particularly primary school students, are learning unhealthy and sedentary habits at an early age. The parental ‘school run’ is removing a valuable opportunity for beneficial exercise, both in the form of walking and cycling. Good habits are best learned at a young age; if children don’t find other forms of exercise to replace that lost opportunity then the ongoing effect on their physical fitness is surely a cause for concern.

From a personal perspective, another concern is how can we expect children to gain an understanding of the benefits of sustainable modes of transportation if they aren’t exposed to them early on in life?

And lastly, we can return to the age-old horror stories we told of our gruelling journey to school in our own youth (snow, sleet, hurricanes, etc.) How can today’s children develop that same sense of independence and self-reliance if they are chauffeured to school in air-conditioned comfort?

Oh yeah, parents: don’t forget, fewer school runs would also have the beneficial by-product of saving parents from having to listen to their kids’ awful CDs on the car stereo. You know it makes sense!

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