A recent report commissioned by the Irish Sports Council found that the number of children engaged in active travel to school ie walking or cycling has risen considerably since 2004. Apparently good news but a closer examination shows that the news is not as good as first seemed.
While there has been a significant increase in cycling and walking it will come as no surprise to cycling advocates to learn that all of the increase is in walking. Among secondary school pupils the number of cyclists has remained at the same level while among primary students the level of cycling has actually fallen.One of the revealing statistics in the report is that between 1991 and 2006 the number of active travelling 13-18 year olds fell from 42% to 27% which co-incides with rapidly increasing car ownership and levels of obesity among young people in Ireland. One of the strengths of active travel is that compared to most other sport activities, the level of participation does not decrease with age. With an average commute of 30 minutes per day (both directions) the contribution of active travel would go a long way towards the Department of Health’s daily target of a minimum of 60 minutes moderate to vigorous physical activity (60min MVPA). Despite the over whelming evidence of the downside of driving, many urban and rural parents drive their children to school and drop them off outside the school after parking on the footpath – thereby not only depriving their own children of the opportunity of active travel but endangering others who choose to walk and cycle.
Surprisingly, the report found that the main obstacle to active commuting was distance. The next main obstacle was given as time by secondary school pupils and as time/traffic related danger by primary school pupils. This was quite surprising as it had been expected that traffic related danger would figure more prominently. It begs the question what distance and what journey duration do pupils consider unreasonable and are they perceived to be unreasonable because of the fitness levels of pupils. It would also be interesting to know whether time and distance factors are put forward by those who travel by car or bus from rural areas or within urban areas. A more detailed analysis of the data is needed to identify the obstacles for those who could potentially engage in active travel but currently do not.
In its recommendations, the report sets the goal of an increase in cycling from the current levels of 1% (primary) and 3% (secondary) to 5% by 2020. This does not appear to be consistent with the National Cycle Policy Framework goal of 10% of all journeys by bike by 2020. Unless the authors of the report consider that the National Cycle Policy Framework goal is unrealistic, it would have been expected that the takeup of cycling by children would be higher than by adults. The report goes on to state
‘Very low levels of children cycle to school. Research needs to explore why this is the case and establish possible interventions to put in place to reduce barriers to cycling.’
More research is not needed to explore why – the reasons are obvious – an environment designed around cars and resulting car dependency. What is needed is more promotion of cycling and more restrictions on private cars in urban areas. Establishing a 30kph speed limit as the norm in urban areas would be a good start.