Back to School: Walking to schools helps body, brain and the planet

School is coming, ready or not, and it’s time for parents as well as kids to get ready. Herald reporter (and mum) Kirsty Wynn offers a practical guide to what you need to know. Today: Transport.

Every week close to 760,000 school-aged kids walk, ride, take a ferry, are driven or drive themselves to school around New Zealand.

How they get there depends on proximity to school, the age, stage and attitude of the child and the safety of the route.

Walking to school comes with the most advantages from obvious health benefits, easing traffic congestion and reducing carbon emissions.

However, many parents start the year encouraging their child to walk or ride to school then slip into the habit of driving them.

Data from Figure NZ drawn from the 2018 Census shows the majority of children in New Zealand – close to 40 per cent – are driven to school.

In comparison around 20 per cent of Kiwi kids walk to school – despite a push from schools and Auckland Transport to get more children on foot or bus.

Most primary schools actively promote walking, scootering or biking to school as the preferred option.

Parents spoken to by the Herald say weather, distance, “running late” and perceived dangers are the main reasons they drop their child to school.

In Auckland, more than half of the 260,000 children who travel to school each day go by car.

The city’s traffic during term time is 12 per cent heavier than during the holidays with most congestion around drop-off and pick-up.

One mum said her pre-teen daughter was a regular walker until she was followed home by a stranger in a car.

“It was a really scary experience for her and she wouldn’t walk to school for the rest of that year,” the woman said.

“It was reported but nothing came of it. Now she always walks in a group in the morning and she has a phone to text me if she ever gets stuck walking alone in the afternoon.”

The woman suggested parents set up a Whatsapp or Messenger group with the parents of nearby friends to arrange walking buddies and occasional carpooling.

“If it’s pouring with rain we take turns to run them to school but otherwise they walk together. It’s safer and they enjoy the social aspect.”

More than 75 per cent of Auckland schools are part of the Travelwise programme run by Auckland Transport.

Natalie Polley from AT said Travelwise activities aimed to get children active or using public transport and improve safety through education.

“February 2021 is Bike Month and we invite Travelwise schools to participate by running events and activities to promote cycling,” she said.

“There have been 48 per cent fewer crashes involving pedestrians around Travelwise schools, and more than $132 million has been spent on safety infrastructure such as pedestrian and cycling improvements.”

On a normal school day morning, Auckland Transport also runs 195 school bus trips with an average of 39 students on each bus. The afternoons are busier with 283 trips.

The first school trip of the day starts at Gulf Harbour at 6.55am and the last school trip of the day finishes in Titirangi at 4.50pm.

The shortest is the 813 from Takapuna Grammar to Takapuna, at 2.1km.

The longest is the 047A from the Westlake Schools to Gulf Harbour, at 45.3km.

AT also oversees 408 Walking School Buses which are run by 1605 volunteer caregivers and see more than 4502 children walk to school each day across Auckland.

Depending on the size of the group collected along the route there might be as many as three parents keeping the trail of kids in line, encouraging stragglers and keeping walkers away from dangers.

Let them walk and ride

Rain or shine every morning the Gulik siblings set off for school – by foot or bike.

Five-year-old Gwen walks the few hundred metres down the road to school with mum Jackie and older brothers Elliot, 13 and Fletcher, 12, head off on the 2.4km journey to their respective schools.

“I very rarely give them a lift,” Gulik said.

“Elliot walks each morning and Fletcher rides his bike, they meet up with friends on the way and it’s quicker and better for them than me driving.”

Gulik made sure her children were aware of dangers and she knew which route they took.

They were now fitter and more confident and she used the car less.

“This is especially true for Fletcher who rides. He is a lot more road-savvy now and I have seen his confidence grow since he started riding to intermediate.”

She said going it alone to school was dependant on the “age and stage” of the child and encouraged use of local Walking School Buses for younger children.

The North Shore mum has always been a big advocate of leaving the car at home.

Three years ago she lobbied to get safer crossings at Hauraki Primary School where her sons were students.

She was eventually successful at getting two pedestrian crossings installed and an upgrade to an existing crossing.

Before the crossings were installed Gulik and a group of 20 volunteer parents donned high-vis vests to guide children across two busy intersections near the school.

“Since the crossings were installed I have seen a lot more children walking and there are a lot fewer cars around.”

Gulik urged parents who drove their children to a nearby school to encourage the kids to walk or ride in 2021.

“I know a lot of parents think it is easier to drop them but it is actually quicker for them to walk or ride,” she said.

“It gives me half an hour extra free time in the afternoon before the boys get home from school and no morning rush. I know most parents would benefit from that.”

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