Monday, 15 June 2015

School Cycling And Walking Heading In Wrong Direction

Ask any parent what they want for their kid and chances are “good health” will be near the top of the list. (A love of Brussels sprouts and good taste in old folks’ homes when the time comes might be other key desires.)

In Scotland we have our work cut out. Figures from a few months back showed that almost a third of Scots children are at risk of being obese, and as a society we’re still falling short of the physical activity guidelines and fruit and vegetable consumption we know can give us the best chance of a long, healthy life.

I’m not a great fan of finger-wagging, and tend to attach more importance to the environment and culture surrounding us as these clearly affect and often limit our choices when it comes to raising healthy kids.

Which is why this piece of publicity put out by East Lothian Council caught my attention.

With headlines such as:

“East Lothian pupils are amongst the most active in Scotland when it comes to travelling to school.”

And…

“East Lothian pupils are also the least likely to travel to school by car, at only 12% compared to the national average of 25.8%.”

It seems the Garden of Scotland is raising rosy-cheeked bairns who are well on the way to enjoying long, active lives.

But of course, a single figure for the whole county - East Lothian is rightly described as Scotland in microcosm - and comparing us to an average rather than looking at a trend could be masking a more interesting story. So I have been digging.

The Sustrans Hands Up survey of schools has been going for 7 years now, and it’s that I’ve drawn my figures from. I’ve focused on Musselburgh as it’s my immediate patch but it’s also the county’s biggest town, facing yet more development, so we‘d be wise to tackle any bad habits rather than grow into them.

Sadly, what I’ve discovered is that at 4 of the 5 primary schools in Musselburgh, the rate of children being driven to school has increased in recent years, not fallen. And the rate of cycling to school in Musselburgh is less than half the East Lothian average.

Could these trends indicate a town whose streets have become less safe for cycling? Are working parents under more pressure to commute for work by car? And what sort of response can we expect from the local council and the Scottish Government?

Across East Lothian the rate of walking to primary school has fallen from 60.3 per cent in 2008 to 48 per cent last year. The rate of cycling increased slightly from 8.1 to 10.7, scootering rocketed from 2 to 11.8 and being driven fell a wee bit from 18.9 to 13. So it seems scootering has replaced walking for many primary pupils, and that’s understandable because it‘s fun and easy to do.

Burgh Primary is the best for scootering in Musselburgh at 9.2 per cent. It’s also the only school in town to have seen a drop in car drop-offs, from 27.6 per cent in 2008 to 13.3 last year. Given the built up catchment area and the morning traffic jams on the roads around the town centre school you can understand that many parents will view walking or scootering as a quicker, less stressful option.

But given the compact nature of the town why the low rates of cycling? If the East Lothian average is 10.7 per cent (hardly budging from 8.1 in 2008) why is Campie at just 3.3, Loretto RC at 4.5, Burgh at 5.8, and Pinkie and Stoneyhill both at 5?

(I’m also amazed to learn the rate of cycling to the secondary school - Musselburgh Grammar - has fallen from 0.7 per cent in 2008 to 0.6 last year. Is riding a bike when you get to S1 just not cool?)

Given the need to encourage active lifestyles we have to get rates of walking and cycling up, and reduce the need for kids to be driven. Creating safe walking and cycling routes across the town must be a priority. I’m aware the junior road safety officers at Burgh school identified risky junctions, crossings and bad parking on surrounding streets last year but those findings have yet to be acted upon by the local authority.

What’s more, if we look at the ring fenced funding being provided to local authorities for safe routes to schools by the Scottish Government, we see this issue is not being taken at all seriously.

The East Lothian Council budget states that “Cycling Walking Safer Streets” funding has fallen from £153,000 in the financial year just past to £120,000 in each of the next two years. Across Scotland this funding has fallen in the Scottish Government budget from £8.2 million last year to just £8 million this year.

With cuts to funding, not to mention local authority staff, we appear to be accepting that this issue is a low priority. The health of our kids? What could be more important? It’s time to shift this up a gear.

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