29 July 2015

Getting to school without getting in the car

Our Big Girl started full-time school this year (Pre-Primary). 

Best friends on the bus on the first day of school, back in February
The school is 1.6km from our house - exactly one mile. There is a very busy road to cross. However, we have committed to getting her there without getting in the car. 

Most days we take the bus. There is no 'school bus' (they are not common in Australian cities) but a public bus route picks up about a block away and drops off at the school gate.

Other days we walk, ride or scooter. We are more than halfway through the year, and we have driven less then ten times - almost all when the car was on its way somewhere else and included a school drop-off or pick-up in the same journey.

Initial Time: Walking with Eva takes about 20 minutes, plus about ten minutes for an adult to walk home again. The bus only takes five minutes of actual bus time, but by the time we walk to the stop and wait, it is a 15 minute journey all together to get to school (generally Tyson or I then walk rather than bus our way home again). After school, the bus includes a wait, and is almost always late on top of that, meaning getting home at least half an hour after school lets out, often longer. If both Eva and parent scooter or ride, its less than a ten minute trip each way, including time for tying up the bike. If Eva rides and her adult walks, its more like 15 minutes. 

Driving takes about 5 minutes, so all these options add time.

Initial Cost: Riding, walking and scootering are free (Eva's bike was a hand-me-down gift; her scooter we found on bulk rubbish and Tyson fixed it up). The bus costs 60c each way for Eva and between 60c or $2.25 for Tyson and I (depending on whether our concession is current, and whether we bus home again or walk back). If we caught the bus each way each day that could be between $12 and $28.50, but as we always mix it up with some walking/riding/scootering, and also share accompanying children on the bus with another family, in practice its more like $6 a week.

Ongoing time or cost commitment: Over the course of a year, I estimate we are spending about $240 on bus fares getting to and from school. Best case scenario we add about 1 hour a week to our travel times; worst case (lots of slow walking or waiting for late buses) we add up to 5 hours. However, this time has its own value (see 'impact'), so is not 'wasted' time in the week.


If we drove to and from school every day, this would be approximately 32km of driving per week. Given the stop-start nature of the trip, including a set of traffic lights that often takes a couple of cycles to get through at peak hour, the car doesn't run as efficiently for this sort of trip as is it can at optimum. Driving every trip would use around 2.72L of fuel per week - approximately $3.80 worth, generating around 7.4kg of CO2. (By comparison, this tool suggests that taking the bus would add about 3kg of CO2 to our carbon footprint, but that's a very rough estimate with many variables). In a year, allowing for some carbon footprint when we take the bus, we are saving around 270kg of CO2 each year by not driving to school.

Studies have shown that the rates of Australian school children in suburban areas using 'active transportation' (ie human-powered) to get to school have declined by around 40% since the early 1970s. In 2003, around 65% of primary and 40% of secondary school students in a Sydney study were driven to and from school, up from approximately 21% and 10% in 1971. Walking and bus-riding both declined. (Cycling was such a small number it didn't figure in the statistics, possibly because the area studied was quite hilly, However, other studies show the number of children riding bikes at all, let alone to school, is declining). If we were to postulate that 50% of Australia's approximately 3.7 million school students are driven to school every day, and conservatively estimate round trips of 1km at each end of the day for these students, that adds up to 74 million kilometres each week being driven to get children to and from school. That's over 1.3 million kg (1,300 tonnes) of CO2 being pumped into our air every week just getting Australian kids to school (much more, actually, as this doesn't allow for longer distances travelled to country schools, but I accept that in regional areas there are fewer alternate options). Taking our car off the road is a small contribution to reducing that, but hopefully we can inspire a few others to join us too. 

Not driving also addresses general traffic congestion. Everyone knows how much easier it is to get around the city when its school holidays, because there are far fewer cars on the roads. When congestion in the school carpark was a problem earlier this year, the school staggered the times of classes ending their day but never once suggested that parents could consider not driving to address the carpark problem! We can do better than that, surely?

Its not just about getting our car off the road, though - its also about getting us active. I prefer to walk or ride rather than bus because the exercise at each end of the school day is good for both me and Eva. She is a pretty active, physical person - it helps her school day a lot if she has burned off a bit of steam before arriving in the morning; it helps our afternoon tempers a great deal if she has one mile of exercise to stretch herself out after being cooped up all day, especially when wet weather has kept them off the playground. Of course, exercise is good for our general health as well!

Although I err away from the bus when I can, Eva loves it, especially as her best friend is mostly on the bus too, and they sit with admirable self assurance amidst the teenagers from our local high school who also use that bus. The after-school time playing freely on the vacant lot beside the bus stop waiting for the always-late bus is a highlight of her day (less so of mine).

There is also much intangible value in teaching our children that they can be self-sufficient. They can transport themselves to school (with adult supervision at this age, but eventually alone or with friends). In a culture that breeds dependence and, in doing so, de-skills children, this is very important. We are also teaching by example that they don't need to have a car to get everywhere, which will hopefully shape their implicit sense of 'normal' into adulthood.


Key 2012 Heart Foundation report into 'Active Travel to School' in Australia, which everyone else quotes in their articles.

Environmental Benefits of Walking (Diabetes Australia)

2011 article at The Conversation about decline in Australian children riding to school, what is causing it, why its a bad thing and what can be done to reverse the pattern.

Bicycle Network's Ride2School program

Results hot off the press for the National Cycling Participation Survey 2015 (released last week)

Cycling tips for school drop-off

Australian Bureau of Statistics article (2013) on Australian car ownership trends and implications. Gosh I love the ABS. Such brilliant, ongoing data collection and analysis.

International Walk To School (yep, that's a thing)

Walking School Bus program in Victoria and more generally

Various SA Education Department fact sheets on safe travel to school, including everything from catching a train to knowing the road markings as a pedestrian.