A survey by the Policy Studies Institute has found that parents overwhelmingly no longer allow their children to go to school on their own because of the danger of traffic - so they are driving them there instead. Between 1971 and 1990 the percentage of children sent to school unsupervised fell from 80 to 9 per cent.
A "Safe Routes to School" conference, organised by the charity Sustrans, will be held on June 25 to examine the opportunities open to local authorities to break the vicious circle. With a keynote address by the Sir George Young, Secretary of State for Transport, and chaired by Jon Snow, the newscaster and patron of Sustrans, it will also showcase a three-year national demonstration project of the same name. "Safe Routes to Schools" aims to encourage children to cycle and walk to school while allaying parental fears by improving safety through street design, traffic calming, creating traffic-free spaces. It all links in with Sustran's millennium inspiration, the National Cycle Network, which received Pounds 42 million Lottery funds in 1995.
Four local authorities (York, Leeds, Colchester and Hampshire) are working with Sustrans staff, teachers and pupils to design, develop and fund safe routes to 10 pilot schools, selected to reflect a mix of catchment areas, sizes, age ranges and funding statuses. Pilot schools will undertake a questionnaire on pupils' travel patterns and fitness; develop curriculum work from ideas in the recently published Safe Routes to Schools Teachers' Resource Folder; establish good practice links with pioneering countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands and work with local authority staff on designing on-the-ground measures such as shared use pavements (for walkers, cyclists and pushchairs and wheelchairs), segregated cycle paths and safe crossings.
One pilot is Burnholme Community College, which draws pupils from a small housing estate in York. Road safety is a big issue with local roads becoming rat runs. The questionnaire showed that among Years 7 and 8, 80 per cent walked and 12 per cent cycled to school, but 57 per cent considered their journey "less than safe". Of those who cycled, or would have liked to, 37 per cent felt bike parking facilities were not good enough. The shelters had been removed after persistent misuse.
Pupils Lucy Heffernan and Gillian Stevenson have researched the attitudes of their classmates to cycling: "The bike shelters should be put back under a 'key system', with only cyclists having access. The money could come from a sponsored bike ride and from Friends Of Burnholme School."
David Rowsell, acting head and keen cyclist, is fully supportive of the project. He says: "We are a community college. We want to provide our pupils with real life problems and contexts for work." Pupils are now in correspondence with a school in Denmark, and a visit is in the offing for October.
At the Gilberd School in Colchester, Safe Routes to Schools are also integrated into the curriculum. The initial questionnaire was carried out as part of a Year 8 geography project, and analysed in maths. The results showed 36 per cent of young people walked, 11.5 per cent cycled and 72 per cent consider their journey to be less than safe, again because of car-filled roads.
Concerned pupils have just finished making a video about the problems of getting to school. It will get its first showing at the conference. Paul Pressland, head of upper school says: "We are excited at the prospect that our young people's research and their ideas are going to make a difference to the safety of roads near the school. This will benefit the whole community. "
It is early days for the pilot schemes, but a project in Denmark shows what can be achieved. In Odense, population 150,000, safe routes to school measures have cut child cycle and pedestrian accidents by 80 per cent since 1985.
Safe Routes to Schools conference, 25 June, Senate House, University of Londonn Details of the teacher's resource folder and the project from Sustrans (schools), 35 King Street, Bristol BS1 4DZ. Tel: Celia Beeson on 0117 926 8893 Julian Agyeman is an environmental consultant and author of the Safe Routes to Schools Teachers' Resource Folder