As the traffic lights change to green, a long line of children on their bikes accompanied by adults wearing reflective safety vests crosses the road. It is the bike train. A form of accompanied school travel that promotes sustainable mobility, daily exercise, and trains children to become independent and capable road users.
Active school travel
Primary school pupils spend less and less of their time outdoors. Their daily journey to school is not active and independent. They are becoming increasingly overweight and are lacking daily physical activity.
In Slovenia, as well as in many other countries, children are usually brought to school by car, van or bus, although the distance they have to travel is rather short and they could easily walk or cycle.
The chosen mode of school travel is a consequence of a range of factors, from personal and social circumstances of the family to spatial features of the neighbourhood as well as school rules and municipal policies.
Active school travel is important for the health, independence and social development of children as it ensures the minimal recommended amount of daily exercise, and promotes education on traffic safety and sustainable development. Children who walk or cycle to school are fitter than children who are driven there. Experts say that these children are also generally more physically active and face less problems paying attention in school.
Walking bus and bike train
Walking bus accompanies children to school in organised groups following a set route and timetable. Children are enjoying the walk with their peers in the company of adults and at the same time contribute to a more attractive neighbourhood and a cleaner environment. Bike train is very similar with the only difference that the whole group travels on bikes.
Walking buses and bike trains are common in the US and Australia. In Europe, they are getting more and more popular in the UK and are quite common in Switzerland as well as in Italy. In Slovenia, the idea is still in its early stages. This spring, a consortium led by IPoP – Institute for Spatial Policies with financial support from the Ministry of Health organised pilots testing these activities in Slovene cities. Pilots ran in three primary schools, one in Nova Gorica and two in Ljubljana.
The pilots were tailor-made for the participating primary schools, considering their specific needs and circumstances. A route map with stops and an exact timetable were drafted according to the number, age and geographical dispersion of the participating children.
The pilots are part of the programme Zdrav šolar (healthy pupil) that promotes active school travel and encourages pupils’ independence and a healthy lifestyle in an interesting and engaging way. The programme is run by a consortium of NGOs in the field of spatial and urban development and supported by the Ministry of Health. In addition to the walking bus and bike train, the programme encompasses other pilot activities. Maribor cycling Network is testing the transport of school meals from a food cooperative to schools with cargo bikes. In Izola and Koper, The Slovenian cycling network is giving training on cycling skills. Using a cycling course, pupils learn cycling technics, traffic rules, and get tips on cycling culture, and how to avoid cyclists’ traps.
Benefits for children, parents and the environment
For two weeks this April, the pupils of Primary School Majda Vrhovnik in Ljubljana walked and cycled to school starting from three different stations. In a bit less than 30 minutes, the most distant pupils walked about a kilometre and cycled twice as much. 38 children aged from 6 to 10 took part. Groups of children were accompanied by volunteers from Ljubljana Cyclists Network and Društvo Šola zdravja, an association of seniors promoting daily exercise outdoors. On some days there was even a 14-year-old husky to keep them company.
Accompanied active school travel not only has a great impact on the children and the environment, but is also beneficial for parents. They can avoid the daily hectic on the roads and bring their children to a walking bus or bike train stop instead of dropping them off in front of the school.
One of the ambitions of the programme was to initiate this practices and persuade the main actors – the schools, the parents, and the volunteers – to continue with it even after the pilot period. It did not resume instantly, but it transformed into a lively and engaged discussion (involving all the main actors) on the next steps to make this practices sustainable. Drawing from the experience of the pilots, recommendations and guidelines were developed, and those should enable schools and cities to adopt walking bus and bike train as regular activities.
Motivate parents and make it fun!
Experience shows that the most difficult part is to involve people who would be willing to accompany children either on foot or by bike on a daily basis. Therefore, it is crucial to engage teachers, parents, as well as other relatives (especially grandparents), and active citizens to take part and build a system everyone can rely on. Eventually, the responsibility of accompanying children to school should be shared among a number of adults who take turns and consequently spend less time on it every day. Promotion of walking bus and bike train that highlights the advantages for all parties is therefore the very important first step. Overall ownership of these practices is the way to success.
Coordination of individual walking buses and bike trains can also be a challenge. Planning the optimal routes and timetables takes some time and requires some skill. Sharing the knowledge gained through the pilots on these rather technical details will be one of the main future activities of the programme coordinators.
Apart from all the benefits for the whole social and physical environment, the well-being of children is the main motivation for active school travel. According to the pilots, children enjoy walking or cycling to school in groups a lot! They spend the time actively, outdoors, and have fun with their peers. The positive experience for children should be one of the main ideas to communicate. It will mostly be them to decide whether they want to take part in the activity at all. In the pilots, a fun factor were the stamps pupils got whenever they attended either walking bus or bike train. And for every full week they got a sticker!
What can cities do?
The programme Zdrav šolar mostly targets schools, as those who educate children to become environmentally aware and independent individuals. However, cities and municipalities are very important actors. Their policies and actions influence school travel to a great extent. In Slovenia, municipalities are in charge of primary schools, so they can be the drivers of active school travel using soft and hard measures.
Cities can support their schools in building the image of active school travel, they can offer financial support to run activities, such as walking bus and bike train, and last but not least they can invest in infrastructure to make the daily trip to school safe or even entertaining. Making the cities and towns friendlier to children is making them better for all. Environments that promote walking and cycling enable and encourage children – who are excluded from independent car travel – to move around on their own. Not only on their way to school but also when meeting friends or attending extracurricular and leisure activities.
Funds allocated for school travel should not be invested solely in school buses and other means of motorised school travel. Cities should think about other modes of transport and opportunities for inter-modality. With more children brought to school with sustainable modes of transport cities win more space and decrease traffic jams in the vicinity of schools, reduce the impact of traffic on the environment, educate for sustainable mobility from a very early age, and build communities. Having children present on the streets, instead of being stashed in the cars, meeting their neighbours and getting acquainted with the neighbourhood results in strong community and local ownership.
Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans to consider active school travel
Two URBACT networks are dealing with mobility in cities – CityMobilNet and Freight TAILS.
CityMobilNet is addressing cities’ transportation problems, such as the high loads of GHG emissions and the increased costs cities face from chronic congestions.
Whereas Freight TAILS focuses on the challenges posed by rapidly increasing freight movements, within the context of all urban logistics. Freight transport, by its very nature, has a negative impact on cities – road delivery trips are increasing and cause different kinds of pollution.
Using the URBACT method, the two networks will be developing Local Action Plans to address these challenges in an integrated way.
Considering the above mentioned issues, active school travel lessening the morning rush hours is the first step towards sustainable urban mobility. Cities across Europe either drafting their Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans or working on specialised Local Action Plans just like CityMobilNet and Freight TAILS partners, should devote their energy and attention to school travel. Early school years are a great opportunity to accustom children to sustainable modes of transport, promote active lifestyle, and strengthen environment-friendly behaviour. And the city as a whole will benefit in numerous ways as well.