Easy street: How do we make walking and cycling to school number one?

In our new Synergy column, Cosmos writers explore how we’re dealing with the urgent issues of climate change.

It’s 8:30am on a Friday morning. The sun is out, and there’s a crush of lemon-scented gum in the air as students from Glenroy West Primary in Melbourne’s north start arriving for another school day. 

Some are haring around on bikes and scooters, others turn up on foot, and there’s a street party atmosphere.

Erick Morillo’s I Like To Move It is pumping on the loudspeaker. A coffee cart is handing out free shots of caffeine to parents who chat on the sidelines while their kids draw in chalk on the road.

Drop-off is different today: there are no cars.

The event is part of Open Streets, a program by Merri-bek Council and supported by Bicycle Network, which encourages children to walk and cycle to school.

Merri-bek mayor Cr Angelica Panopoulos lives locally and arrives at the event on foot.

Open Streets is fundamentally a behaviour-change program, she tells Cosmos.

“We want more people to be walking, and riding and scooting to school. We need to get people out of their cars and moving – it’s good for the climate, it’s good for our health, it’s good for our social connection,” Panopoulos says.

By 2030, Merri-bek aims for 80% of school trips to be by foot, bike, scooter or public transport. Open Streets is part of that journey. So far, council has held similar events at 9 schools across the municipality: closing an adjacent street to cars at drop-off and pick-up on the same consecutive day over 3 weeks.

The collective joy at Glenroy West is palpable. And beyond the fun, there are other reasons to act: improved physical and mental health, cognitive development, community connection, reduced congestion and associated air pollution.

It also helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Australian Government figures show transport is the nation’s third highest source of emissions (after electricity and other stationary energy) accounting for about 21% of the annual total.

Transport is one of the few sectors where emissions are going up rather than down. Active transport, like walking and cycling, can help turn that around.

Children ride bikes to school
Glenroy West students ride to school. Credit: Merri-bek City Council, supplied

Active declines

The share of Australian children travelling to school by bike or on foot has steeply declined in the last 40 years – from 75% to 25% – according to a report by the Western Australian government.

In other countries, like Japan (98%), the Netherlands (87%), Denmark (59%) and the United Kingdom (52%), the share of active school travel is much higher.

Dr John Stone, a senior lecturer in transport planning at the University of Melbourne, says active transport is “the fundamental building block of the transport system”.

Most trips taken by Australians involve some active travel – even people who drive or take public transport will usually walk as part of that journey. For those without access to a car, Stone says getting around with human power is a vital freedom we should be protecting.

“It’s totally independent. It’s really good for your health, and not just physical health, it’s mental health,” Stone says.

It’s also an important pathway to zero emission transport.

Transport is the nation’s third highest source of emissions after electricity and other stationary energy.

Replacing car trips with walking, cycling or public transport is key but “requires a degree of public acceptance and even enthusiasm” says the International Energy Agency. Its Net Zero Emissions modelling shows 185 million tonnes of carbon dioxide can be cut in the next 6 years by reducing private car travel in large cities.

Modelling by the Climate Council shows that if transport emissions are to be cut, Australia will need to drive less and walk, cycle and take public transport more. To keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees of pre-industrial levels, public transport would need to be used for 62% of passenger trips, cars 20% and active travel 18%.

It’s a starkly different future for our cities compared to maintaining the status quo, where 81% of travel would use a car, 14% of trips on public transport and 5% active.

Car trips which can be replaced with walking or cycling tend to be shorter, so their climate impacts are more modest, according to Dr Elliot Fishman, director at the Institute for Sensible Transport in Melbourne.

Yet on an individual or community level, the emissions reductions of substituting local car trips to work or school with zero emission alternatives become more meaningful. “They can replace lots of trips that happen in our neighbourhoods, every day … at the shorter end of the spectrum.”

A healthy step

As well as reducing pollution, congestion and frustration on the roads, encouraging active travel could help governments address the epidemic of sedentary lifestyle diseases.

Only a quarter of Australian children meet the recommended levels of physical activity, a problem habitual, accessible, non-competitive and cheap active transport can address.

“In some of our research, we found that children who travelled more frequently to school by walking or cycling, actually spent more time overall during the day in physical activity,” says Dr Alison Carver, a behavioural epidemiologist who researches the way built and social environments impact on children’s travel.

“Independent mobility amongst children can really help bonding with peers […] they can have a stronger sense of community, less feelings of loneliness during adolescence, a greater sense of place and feel more connected to the neighbourhood.”

Research shows children prefer actively travelling to school, but their desire to hop on the bike or walk with mum or dad is “pretty well overridden” even if parents recognise the perks.

Children who travelled more frequently to school by walking or cycling, actually spent more time overall during the day in physical activity.

Dr Alison Carver

In research for the South Australian government, public health and active transport expert Dr Jan Garrard surveyed 816 parents of primary school children from 291 schools across the state. They agreed active travel is good for physical activity (97%), good for the environment (91%) and makes the neighbourhood a pleasant place (73%).

That’s good news, considering about 80% of those families live 5km from their school and half are within 2km. Even so, 76% of parents Garrard surveyed drive their children to school.

Time, convenience, and especially perceptions of safety and risk are factors that influence the decision to motor to school.

“We don’t have a road environment which is forgiving of children’s occasional mistakes, it’s much more likely to be harmful,” says Garrard.

“Of course, it’s not only children walking and cycling that make errors on the roads, it’s drivers too.

“Our traffic and transport systems are geared around cars. We don’t think quite so rigorously about how we keep pedestrians and cyclists safe as we do about car occupants.”

Amenity makes amenable

Parents support measures like improved footpaths, crossings, bike paths and storage, lower traffic speeds, increased enforcement of driver behaviour around schools and parking restrictions.

But though her research shows this, Garrard says Australians still perceive the benefits of driving as outweighing those of walking and cycling.

Fishman says one of the reasons other countries have higher rates of walking and cycling is their supportive infrastructure and active discouragement of car travel.

The Netherlands, for example, has a country-wide default speed limit of 30 km/h. Another Melbourne council, the City of Yarra, is considering such a move.

We need to get people out of their cars and moving – it’s good for the climate, it’s good for our health.

Cr Angelica Panopoulos

The Institute for Sensible Transport has measured the effectiveness of different interventions based on cost and the impact of active transport.

Fishman says a “modal filter” allowing people to walk and cycle, and street residents to move their cars while blocking automotive through-traffic, is effective.

He says the discussion in Australia needs to focus less on parents and more on winning over transport planners and politicians – “the ones that control how road space is allocated”.

“We need to make the sustainable choice the easy choice […] and it’s only through that you’ll end up getting much higher levels of walking and cycling than we have currently,” says Fishman.

But parents and children can still play a role at community level, and there are steps families can take to improve and encourage active transport.

“Parents can help by accompanying younger children walking or cycling to school … to build up the habit early on,” says Carver.

“Independent mobility should be promoted amongst older children, if parents perceive them to be developmentally ready, and there is suitable infrastructure for walking and cycling safely.”

At the school level, they can have active transport programs, and things like bike sheds or racks. Drop-off points for cars at least 400m from the school can help to reduce congestion around the school gates and tip the scales in favour of alternative transport.

“From an urban planning perspective, we need schools to be located within urban areas that have really good walking and cycling infrastructure that would actually connect homes to schools,” Carver says.

“There’s also safety in numbers. If people see their children’s friends are walking to school, they’re more likely to let their children do it as well.”

A blue sign that reads "this street is open to walking, scooter, wheelchair, bikes"
Credit: Petra Stock

Better urban planning, encouraging locals to make active short trips and creating safety in numbers are among the principles that underpin initiatives like Open Streets, where communities show that climate actions can be effective and joyful.

Mayor Panopoulos says parents and neighbours have been supportive. Feedback shows 93% want more frequent Open Street events. 

Glenroy West parent Charmaine Couch says she enjoyed walking to school while her son Ollie scooted alongside. During their 1.5km trip they enjoyed bumping into other families and having a chat along the way. 

Dale Odgers, who has a child in year 2, says “it’s a nice community spirit to see everyone out together … it is nice not having the street full of cars.”

Stone, who engages with many communities trying to improve transport systems, says Merri-bek’s Open Streets are part of a larger national and global movement.

In Europe, thousands of people are joining campaigns like Kidical Mass working to transform their cities and transport systems to better support children to travel safely and independently.

And across Australia, individuals, schools, communities and local councils are trying to find alternatives to the “chaos of car drop-off time, and reorganising street space outside schools so that people feel safer having their kids walking or cycling to school,” Stone says.

There are plenty of engineers, planners, communities and governments that want safer streets and to tackle climate change, “but those things get squeezed by the engineer who says: ‘I can’t do it, I’m not allowed to do it’.

“We need to give the engineer the freedom to do what people want them to do.”

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