How to get more children cycling safely to your school
The UK is fast becoming a nation full of obsese children living in polluted cities. Cycling to school is often mentioned as a great way to get more kids active and reduce the number of cars on the road. However, being brutally honest the prospect of cycling to school is terrifying for most parents because the roads often aren’t safe and the air quality is poor. Numbers are low, with very few children (less than 5%) actually cycling to school.
So what to do? Do you shrug your shoulders and continue to drive them to school? Or do you stand up and demand that your child has the right to cycle safely to school? After all, in The Netherlands 49% of primary school children and over 75% of secondary school pupils bike to school.
But how do you go about this? Every school is different and there is no one-size fits all solution. It takes hard work and perseverance, but as more parents, teachers and children are standing up and demanding change, we thought it would be useful to collate the techniques that have worked for others, and provide links to resources you can use in your school.
If you have any additional experiences to add, please leave a comment at the end of the post.
Encouraging cycling to your school: Getting started
Whilst it’s possible to do some or all of the suggestions on this page by yourself, it’s much easier, effective and fun to have a group of people working on it. Setting up a small steering group can help drive change much more quickly. Depending on the size and type of school, you could draw membership from parents, school governors, staff, pupils, PTA, local residents and local cycling campaign groups.
Don't reinvent the wheel
Lots of work has already been done to make it easier to cycle to school, so don't reinvent the wheel. Reach out to others, learn from their mistakes and take forward their successes. Share, collaborate and give credit where it's due.
Sustrans School Mark is a national scheme to encourage cycling to school. Make sure your school is signed up and aiming for Gold accreditation. For schools in Wales, there are additional resources available.
In Scotland, register your school for the Cycle Friendly Primary School or Secondary School awards, which will provide you with lots of useful resources.
In Northern Ireland schools can sign up for the Active Schools Travel Programme.
If you are in London ensure your school is signed up to the TFL STARS scheme (Sustainable Travel: Active, Responsible, Safe) and help them work towards being a Gold accredited STARS school.
All other schools in England (outside London) can sign up free for the Modeshift STARS national schools awards scheme.
You can check to see whether yours is one of the 2,000 schools around England and Wales which are located near roads with illegal and dangerous levels of emissions from diesel cars. If it is, use this fact to add urgency to your campaign.
Get the kids wanting to cycle to school
Children tend to have a brilliant sense of what is right and wrong, especially about the environment, their own future and the health and wellbeing of their family. Harnessing “pester power” is a great way to help parents change their behaviour. You could:
- Invite speakers to assembly to explain the benefits of active travel to school and the problems associated with driving to school. Your local council road safety team, Sustrans 'Bike It' officer (if you're lucky enough to have one) or local cycle campaigns can help
- Run a Big Shift competition to encourage more active travel to school for a week
- Run a longer term points based incentive scheme for walking, scooting or cycling to school
- Ask the children to make some drawings reminding parents not to park outside the school gates and display these on the gates
- Ask the children to make a map showing safe walking and cycling routes to school
- Get the children to look at these issues themselves. One group of school children produced this report
- Arranging Bikeability courses will help to give children the skills needed to cycle to school, as well as a reason to arrive at school by bike
- For younger children, learning to ride a balance bike can be incorporated into the curriculum
- Set up a Go-Ride School club to provide cycle coaching
- Have cycling champions in each class, who meet regularly to devise the next initiative
Making the school entrance safer for cyclists
If your school entrance is a chaotic mass of cars and SUVs, making it dangerous for children arriving on foot or by bike, then there are a steps you can take to try and improve things. If you can sort out the school entrance, then you may find it easier to get parents to consider more active travel choices.
Steps you can take to improve your own school include:
- Regularly communicate to the parents and tell them where they can and can't park and why
- Explain to parents the dangers of excessive pollution near the school gate
- Ask your local Police liaison officer to help draft a letter to be distributed to parents over the importance of road safety, and where they can and can't park
- Ask parents to pledge not to drive up to the school gate, leaving it safer for staff and children arriving by bike, foot and scooter
- A windscreen sticker for those that make the pledge can help remind them of their pledge
If parents refuse to cooperate, then it may be necessary to take action to ensure the school entrance is kept clear
- Some schools have parents, teachers or pupils marshalling the front of the school
- This can be followed up by a 'name and shame' series in the school newsletter with a picture of the number plates of the regular culprits
- If unsafe and illegal parking persists, or the offenders become aggressive, ask the local police to do random checks before and after school
- Having a 'lollypop' person on duty outside the school can help with parking enforcement and allowing a safe passage into the school for children on foot, scooter or bike. This is an expensive option and you would need to persuade your local council that the traffic levels and risks to safety justified the investment
- Some councils have started to implement no-parking zones around some of the worst affected schools. There is currently no national scheme for this, but examples can be found in Havering, Croydon, Hackney and Edinburgh.
Getting more children to walk and cycle to school
Does your school have safe routes to walk or cycle to school that aren't being used? Sometimes a lack of confidence, perceived lack of time, or just plain inertia stops people from choosing more active travel choices. Making cycling and walking easier and fun can help to create momentum.
- A walking bus is a good way to start reducing the reliance on the car. Children meet up at a prearranged point and walk together, supervised by a rota of parents. Many local councils have details on how to arrange a walking bus - check your local school transport site. Further information can also be found at:
WalkingSchoolBus.org or just Google "Walking Bus" to get lots of inspiration
- Just do it – if you/ your child cycles to school, others may well follow suit. If teachers cycle to school, this can send a powerful message to pupils
- Create a cycling buddy scheme to help families who are nervous about cycling, or who don’t know the safe routes to school. You can arrange to meet up and cycle together until they are confident to do the journey alone
- Take part in some of the nationally organised cycling campaigns:
Sustran's Big Pedal - a nation wide competition to get kids cycling to school between Monday 25 March and Friday 5 April 2019.
Sustran's Bike to School Week - lots of resources for you to run your own Bike to School week, when ever suits your school
Bike Week 2019 is 8th - 16th June 2019
Cycle to Work Day - Thursday 8th August 2019
Kidical Massive - a global initiative to get families with young children cycling - usually mid September. Good for inspiration
Stories from the School Run - a pop up campaign that collects real life stories about cycling and walking to school, to demonstrate the challenges faced
- Get together with other cycling parents, or a local bike shop, and run a “How to” session, to discuss the various options in terms of bikes, accessories and clothing. The Hop Onboard Project in London has started to do this. You can team up with other schools and community groups for this
- Arrange a "Doctor Bike" session where a local bike mechanic comes in and checks over all the kids (and family) bikes
- Ensure there is adequate, secure cycle parking. You may need to seek funding from the local council or you could ask a local bike shop to sponsor the bike shed
- Get a pump track built on the school grounds, so children can ride their bikes during and out of school hours.
- If you are in England, your school may well have received an additional School Sports Premium, which can be spend on active travel to school
- Create your own Facebook Group to encourage parents to communicate about family cycling, and plan routes and rides
Improving routes to school
In an ideal world every school would have a safe cycle route from every home all the way to the door, and of course this is something we should all aspire to. Getting investment decisions takes time, and it's best to work in collaboration with other schools and with active travel / cycle campaigning organisations in your area. This is the most important part of getting more children to cycle to school. If there was a national cycling infrastructure, such as in the Netherlands and Denmark, then most of the actions above would be obsolete. This post by Rachel Aldred has details of what makes cycling infrastructure safe for children to ride on which can be helpful with any discussions you have with your local authorities.
A few ideas to get things moving include:
- Invite councillors, MP and transport engineers to accompany you on the school run
- Get the Parking Enforcement Team (aka Traffic Wardens) to visit the area and feedback on how to improve the local area – they have hands on experience and can help you shape your demands of the local council
- Share examples of good practice with your local council teams
- Get actively involved in campaigning for better cycling provision throughout your local area
- Talk to the press and use social media to promote everything you're doing (this is a good example of how one tweet can get things moving - keep watching as it's about 10 seconds into the film clip)
These are just some of the many things that can be done to help increase cycling to school. If you have any more examples, or would like to share a case study to inspire others, please leave a comment below.
With thanks to cycling campaigner and mum of two Sylvia Gauthereau for the majority of the content for this article, and to Sally, Clare, Eleanor and Sarah from the Family Cycling UK Facebook Group for the photos.
Other articles you may find useful:
This post was first published in November 2017 and updated in May 2019 to update the links and dates for 2019 events.
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