Active Travel to School as a Trigger for Healthy City Planning

Maja Simoneti

By Maja Simoneti, on October 20th, 2020

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Do you remember how you travelled to school? In the past, most children walked to school and modern neighbourhoods were designed around schools. A short and safe walk to school was understood as an indicator of the quality of life, social equality and cohesion.

Cities throughout Europe are fully engaged in promoting active mobility. The way children travel to school has become a hot topic again. Working with schools gives quick and wide-reaching results affecting children as well as adults. It gives children a voice in urban planning for walkability. As experienced in Slovenia, children happen to be the sincerest, the most perceptive and the most committed mobility planners. Altogether, dealing with active travel to school, in practice, is in many ways a good starting point for planning a more walkable and healthier urban environment.

Let’s walk to school and change our travel habits

At Grm Novo Mesto Elementary School, Slovenia, around 100 pupils walk to school every day using the Walking Bus. This was not the case four years ago when a consortium of partners started the programme Active Travel to School supported by the Ministry of Health. Walking Buses have been piloted in Slovenia before, but the great breakthrough started in 2016 as the development of the programme encouraged many schools to follow the idea of organising escorted active travel to school for younger pupils.

In Novo Mesto, an eager coordinator started to organise a Walking Bus daily. After a two-week experiment, Marjeta Ferkolj Smolič simply kept the routine and the Walking Bus is still operating today. “The children enjoyed the morning walk together so much that we had to make it a daily practice,” says the powerhouse behind the case. Talking about her experience at the Active Travel to School seminars, she inspired many coordinators from schools and municipalities to join the initiative.

As simple and basic as it is, daily walking can be highly beneficial for our health. We suffer from a sedentary lifestyle and doctors are clear: while inactivity is related to at least 20 chronic conditions and non-communicable diseases, activity such as everyday walking helps by improving our physical and mental health. Besides that, walking is simple, free of charge and the easiest way to get around.

Let’s bike to school!

If our motivation is health, changing travel habits is easier. Numerous studies show that even a slight change in daily travel habits, which would ensure at least half an hour of walking, can be highly beneficial for our physical and mental health. In Slovenia, particularly in agglomerated settlements, schools are close to homes, making walking to school the most efficient way to ensure children get some exercise every day.

However, many parents drive their children to school even though they live nearby. On the other hand, in the rural parts of the country, distances are not always short, so children – like those in Novo Mesto – walk half an hour or more to reach the school. Parents often say they drive their children to school for safety reasons. And yet, surprisingly, the very same parents let their children walk home after school. And guess what? Their children manage to stay safe quite well. As Ms. Ferkolj Smolič explains: “Children don’t even notice that they walk to school for 30 minutes or more. They are having a blast!”

In another Slovenian municipality, Črna na Koroškem, the Walking Bus operates every Friday. Children can also join the Bike Train on Thursdays. Their coordinator, Andrejka Fajmut, understands how much children like and need the daily morning activity. She even got them a cart for school bags, so they can’t complain about how heavy they are, and they can enjoy walking together to school even more.

The joy of walking to school is related to many things. Children report they feel good after the morning walk. Teachers say that fresh air and small talk with fellow schoolmates are a particularly good preparation for schoolwork. However, according to the programme findings, most of the children would like to bike or scoot to school. Talking to children also opens important new perspectives. Not only that they too often cannot travel the way they would like to, but they are also well aware of the health and social benefits of active travel, as well as the negative impacts of cars on the environment in the proximity of schools.

For children, active travel to school is a way of life and a process of non-formal learning. If we give them the possibility to travel to school actively, we are on a good way to ensure they travel healthily, sustainably and, most importantly, in line with their wishes and environmental values. If these are our sincere intentions, we must also involve them in the planning of school routes.

Participation improves planning and practice

To manage children’s safety, the practice of planning the school routes is strongly rooted in the school system as well as local traffic and safety planning in Slovenia. Supervised by the Slovenian Traffic Safety Agency, schools, police and local authorities work together to plan the school routes. Every school has a school route map with hotspots and proposed safe walking routes. The map is regularly checked and updated. Children are familiar with it and they learn about traffic rules and safety by using it in class.

The programme Active Travel to School went a step further and opened an opportunity for one primary school and municipality to test a new approach. Together with Dr. Josip Plemelj Elementary School and the Municipality of Bled, the yearly renovation of the school route map has been slightly changed. Together with their teacher, the pupils have analysed the traffic situation and walking infrastructure around the school and participated in the evaluation and planning of the improvements. The municipal Council for Prevention and Education in Traffic discussed the situation with the parents and the teachers involved, so a consensus was reached on the final map among pupils, parents, municipality representatives and local traffic and safety specialists.

Isochrones, distance zones for walking, were introduced on the new school route map. Now everybody can easily see how close the school is to their home, the bus station and other important spots. All Walking Bus stops and routes were put on the map as well as the new Kiss and Ride stops. The pupils said it is only fair that children driven to school by their parents have the opportunity to walk a short distance to school every day too. Finally, a large new school route map was posted on the wall at the school entrance hall to encourage the pupils and parents to actively travel to school.

When reporting to the mayor, the children went even a bit further and stressed that all cars should be withdrawn from the vicinity of the school in near future and that teachers should also ride bikes or walk to school, so the area around the school would be safer and more peaceful. You can imagine that this kind of message cannot be easily overheard by anyone.

Involving pupils in the planning of school routes can seriously improve the quality of solutions and the mentality of planning. Not only because of their travel preferences, experiences and opinions about safety, but also because of their fresh and open-mind regarding traffic solutions, health and environment.

Children and health, common motivators for change

The case of the Active Travel to School programme demonstrates a new bold participatory planning and habit-changing practice that cities can count on if they are on the mission to take care of public health and environment. World Health Organization programme Healthy Cities, as well as URBACT Action Planning network Healthy Cities, prove that this is a common effort of many cities around the world.

As more than 100 schools in Slovenia started a Walking Bus at some point, a lot of parents had to adapt their daily routines to escort the children to school. Influenced by their offspring, they are encouraged to rethink their transportation choices too. Inevitably, local inhabitants notice that something is going on. According to the local coordinators, some local communities and cities have developed strong ownership towards the Active Travel to School initiative.

Like the organisation of active travel to school, urban planning for public health concerns numerous sectors, such as education, local traffic and safety, urban design, public health and infrastructure, public services, civil society and private actors that need good collaboration and coordination regularly.

Practice proves that children and health can greatly facilitate the process of bringing people together and make them act in the common interest. The collaboration between local actors in favour of children is deeply rooted in our values. The case of Slovenia and the Active Travel to School programme proves that when children’s health is in question the actors can be even more eager to participate and make changes. Even more so when children are involved in planning and they can become the most convincing advocates of active mobility and sustainable urban development.

WHO recognised the participation and coordination of actors at the local level as the best approach for the improvement of the physical and social environment needed for the development of good public health as well as good health of every individual. More than thirty years ago, WHO started the Healthy Cities programme with two main ambitions: to embed health in urban planning and development, and to stress the role of multilateral partnerships to cope with numerous nonmedical dimensions of health care at the local level. According to WHO, being a Healthy City depends upon “a commitment to improve a city’s environs and a willingness to forge the necessary connections in political, economic, and social arenas”.

Slovenia accepted the concept of Healthy Cities from the very beginning and by now 34 out of 212 municipalities have joined the programme, organised multidisciplinary partnerships and embedded health into a diverse set of development programmess and policies. As the municipalities are also responsible for primary schools, travel to school is a great start to embed health in the implementation of sustainable mobility plans.

Authors: Maja Simoneti and Petra Očkerl, IPoP – Institute for Spatial Policies

Photo credit: Lucija Pušnik

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