Why don’t our kids walk to school any more?

Yellow school crossing sign with faded background.

Nick Place

Posted February 19, 2018

Whether it’s time constraints, safety concerns or bad weather, almost one in four primary-school students never get to school under their own steam.

Michelle Fincke remembers the looks she got from other parents at the school. She had to explain it again. Yes, she did have pre-teen twins and yes, for a while now they’d been catching buses and trains across Melbourne, to school and back. No, they did not have mobile phones.

“But,” came the stuttering reply, “what if they get on the wrong train?” She replied that they’d probably have to get off and find the correct train. Michelle says parents looked at her as though she were a monster, or an alien, or both.

“What I wanted to teach my kids,” she tells us, “is that their first response in this world shouldn’t be to ring their mum for help, that they should learn real-world problem-solving.”

Elizabeth Graham’s 11-year-old son Leroy has an independent streak. They live maybe a kilometre from his primary school and a large park takes up most of the space in between.

In Grade 1 and 2, she or her husband walked their son to school, teaching him how to cross at a busy intersection. By Grade 4, they were crossing that road with him but then letting him ride or scoot the rest of the way through the park, crossing the only other road alongside the school crossing supervisor.

Now he’s making his own way to and from school every day, and Elizabeth barely gives it a second thought. But it’s taken years.

You could be forgiven for thinking the 30 minutes either side of a school day are the most dangerous periods in an urban existence.

Across Melbourne, parents drive their children right to the school gate, or even pick them up at the classroom door, so their child will never take an unaccompanied step on a suburban footpath. 

This isn’t always through fear of all the horrors our imaginations can conjure for a vulnerable primary-school child on their own. There are practical considerations too.

School zone speed limit sign on the side of the road

There are significant health benefits for children who make their own way to school.

An RACV study in 2015 found that almost one in four children aged five to 12 never walked, cycled, or scooted to school, supervised or not.

While the surveyed parents recognised the health benefits of ‘active’ travel, as well as developing children's independence and an understanding of the road rules, the findings also clearly showed that there were daily barriers to that happening.

Parents believed it was too hazardous to let their children tackle the streets because of traffic danger, potential crime or potential bad weather. Some said they lived too far from the school and cited time pressure as reasons for driving.

Given 74 per cent of parents admitted they travelled more independently when they were their child’s age, maybe the fast pace of today’s family life is the biggest hurdle.

The Heart Foundation claims our children are among the “most chauffeured” in the world, with two-thirds of five to six-year-olds and more than half of nine to 10-year-olds being driven to school every day. 

Statistics in the 2016 Australia’s Health Tracker and Getting Australia’s Health on Track documents, produced by the Australian Health Policy collaboration, suggest 70 per cent of Australian children aged five to 11 don’t meet the recommended guidelines of at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day. 

The potential ‘incidental exercise’ of walking, riding or scooting to school could help, says Heart Foundation Victoria’s active communities co-ordinator Lisa Speirs.  

“Walking to school is a fun and simple way to get kids moving, and it comes with a host of benefits,” she says. “It helps kids get some of the physical activity they need to stay healthy, and it helps them create healthy habits for life. Regular physical activity also helps children think, concentrate and solve problems.”

Ride2School is a nationwide program from Bicycle Network designed to help schools encourage children to be active on their journey to school. Ride2School’s Sarah Diamond says an active lifestyle for children needs to be about more than organised sports.

“A recent report found that physical activity in the morning has an impact on a child’s concentration and their ability to understand the curriculum for up to four hours afterwards. There’s overwhelming evidence that it has an impact.”


Pedestrian crossing light with green walking person.

Learning how to deal with real-world situations, such as those encountered while walking to school, plays an essential part in a child's development.

Clinical psychologist Andrew Fuller takes a longer view of the topic, saying it is an essential part of a child’s development to learn how to negotiate the wider world, and to develop an ability to recognise genuine dangers. 

“If you grow up thinking everything is a threat, then you don’t often react when there is a real threat,” Andrew says. “You have got to learn in your life what to trust and what not to trust.

"So, walking to school, you’ve got to learn that at the corners you stop and you look carefully both ways and all that kind of stuff, but while you’re walking along the footpath you’re fine. You’ve got to learn when to be attentive to your safety and when not, when to relax that attentiveness.

“If you want your child to be safe in the world, they have to be able to pick dangerous situations from non-dangerous ones.”

RACV’s manager of road user behaviour, Melinda Spiteri, believes the key is education. “It’s about role-modelling good behaviour, so your kids can see what you’re doing and get that exposure,” Melinda says, adding that research shows that most children are not able to safely negotiate traffic independently until they are 11 or 12 years old. 

“You don’t just go from driving them in the car to letting them run free,” she says. “You start walking with them, let them get used to it, talk them through what you’re doing, how you’re looking at the cars to know when it’s safe to cross, being aware of everything around, traffic signals, meeting the eye of the driver to make sure they’re going to stop at pedestrian crossings. All those things you can teach while walking with them.”

What Sarah Diamond and Andrew Fuller acknowledge is that adults tend to perceive themselves as time-poor. Taking the children to school by car removes imaginary stranger dangers and gets us to work on time. 

“Parents think it’s faster for them to drive their kids to school, rather than walking and teaching them how to look out for danger and how to feel safe in the world,” Andrew says. “So sometimes you’ve got to say, ‘Let’s not take the car, let’s walk’.” 

But these things can also be taught outside peak hour. Ideally, parents should walk their children around their neighbourhood outside school drop-offs, so they can get a sense of roads, strangers and the outside world.

Elizabeth Graham says walking to school with her son prompted some of their best talks. 

“You know the route, and it’s not new, and there’s nobody else there, so you have chats,” she says. “It happens organically, and it was a really lovely part of that time together.”

With school pick-ups and drop-offs accounting for 5 per cent of all peak-time trips in metropolitan Melbourne, any transfer of school children from road to footpath will be a bonus for our traffic-choked suburbs.

The very uniformity of school hours puts pick-up and drop-off trips firmly in busy peak traffic periods. Infrastructure Victoria estimates that in metropolitan Melbourne, these trips at peak times will grow from approximately 660,000 in 2015 to over 860,000 in 2031.

In total, more than 16.2 million trips will occur at peak times in 2031, up from 12.5 million in 2015. 

While this increased activity points to a bustling city and economy with high employment and education rates, it raises serious questions about how our road and rail networks can accommodate this growth.

RACV mobility advocacy manager Dave Jones says smart planning and infrastructure delivery can play a genuine role in shaping how people choose to travel. 

“Supplying a safe and direct cycling path will help families choose a bike,” he says. “Continuous footpaths, nice streetscapes, the presence of other pedestrians and safe places to cross busy roads will help families choose to walk. 

“These simple elements of street design and management can help make people feel more comfortable about letting their kids walk and cycle to school, which has significant benefits for their health and wellbeing. 

“At the same time, it helps reduce stress on the rest of the transport system as it copes with an ever-growing city and population.”

Dave points out that the way we get around our cities is constantly changing. Automated cars and buses are already being trialled on Melbourne roads.

Ride-share services are an accepted means of transport and employment, and car-share reduces the need for families and businesses in inner-city locations to own their own car.

These changes seemed unthinkable a decade ago, so what new options for the school commute might another 10 years bring?

“Small shuttle buses, perhaps even driverless in some cases, might be able to be pre-booked, adjusting their routes each day to stop to pick up children needing the service that day,” says Dave. “Car pooling and ride sharing might become more sophisticated and enable more people to use fewer cars.” 

One predictable constant for our tech-enabled future is that humans will still need to be physically active. On ever-busier streets, low-tech options like walking, cycling or scooting might emerge as the most efficient way of getting kids to school.

“We know that growth is coming,” says Dave. “Keeping children active, with the bonus of relieving pressure on roads, should be impetus enough for our governments to manage that growth by investing in infrastructure that helps families choose to be active.”