CHILDREN who cycle to school are likely to be far fitter than their peers, according to the results of a pioneering project in Glasgow to be announced shortly.
As the Government places travel to school at the heart of its transport reforms, 40 fourth-year pupils at four Glasgow secondaries are already showing the benefits of twice daily exercise to and from school.
Erl Wilkie, the city's Fit for Life manager and cycling officer, forecasts "significant" results from the project launched last year involving Bellahouston Academy, Drumchapel High, Cleveden Secondary and Penilee Secondary.
Each school has three control groups of 30 children. Ten are encouraged to cycle to school and have been given 18-gear bikes, 10 walk and 10 take their normal route. Health checks are carried out every three months.
Mr Wilkie said results were likely to show improved fitness and changes in attitude. "Headteachers have been very taken by the project and other pupils have been joining in," he said.
Pupils who cycle to school helped to plan safer routes, mostly as part of geography projects. The city invested Pounds 360,000 in cycling lanes, special paths, signs and crossings at major junctions as well as providing secure parking for bikes. "We have had no incidents of loss," Mr Wilkie said.
Just over 1 per cent of city pupils cycle to school and Glasgow hopes to double this figure within four years and quadruple it within 10. A network of city-wide safe routes is planned and Holyrood Secondary will become the fifth pilot school by October.
Mr Wilkie said: "If we want people to change attitudes to not using a car so much, it is essential for them to look at alternative transport modes when they are still at school. We have a high rate of children being driven to school and we want to try to make parents believe they do not have to do that any more. We want to make it safer. If we change the attitudes of kids, we may get the parents as well."
Mr Wilkie describes as "spot on" the Government's figure of one in five journeys at peak hours being school related.
Older pupils in primaries may also be encouraged to jump on their bikes once they pass their cycling proficiency tests. Parents could cycle with them to school, Mr Wilkie suggests.
Scottish Office ministers last week underlined their determination to persuade parents to change their approach to school journeys and lessen car dependency. "Walking and cycling are environmentally friendly modes of travel, cause less congestion and no pollution, are healthy, sustainable and readily affordable, " they say.
"Cycling is increasingly recognised as a vital mode in reducing car usage and creating a more sustainable transport network, particularly in urban areas. If people cycled and walked more and used their cars less for short local journeys, local congestion would be reduced."
The Government has pledged to involve the Health Education Board for Scotland, the Scottish Sports Council and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency in campaigns to change attitudes among young people and adults.
"Green transport plans" for individual schools will be part of the strategy. The link between education and transport is said to be "critical".
Sustrans, the safe routes agency sponsored by the Millennium Commission, applauded the commitment to a National Cycle Network. "Limiting speeds to 20mph in urban areas is the single most important step needed for creating a local road environment which will encourage walking and cycling," a spokesman said.
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