Let them get on their bikes!

Kids from Oakgrove Primary School taking part in their cycle to school day.
Kids from Oakgrove Primary School taking part in their cycle to school day.

The Education Minister’s announcement last week of funding for the construction of new facilities for four local schools was welcome news for the city and the education sector. However, as ROSS McGILL, of the sustainable transport charity, Sustrans, explains, the potential negative traffic implications - particularly for the Waterside with Foyle College and Ebrington PS moving to the former MoD lands off the already busy Limavady Road - have local residents and traffic engineers concerned.

School run traffic causes congestion, frustration and pollution in towns across Northern Ireland. With schools now closed for the summer holiday, the reduced congestion in the city is apparent.

Yet we have to be clear about the reasons why we rely so heavily on the car for the school run - and it isn’t because the children want to travel that way.

For example, we know from surveys that more than 90% of pupils own bikes and over half of them say they would like to use them to travel to school. Less then 2% actually do. Our levels of walking and taking the bus to school in Northern Ireland are also lower than average compared to England, Scotland and Wales.

Lack of safe and convenient cycle parking at schools and knowing how to get to school by bike are most commonly cited by children as reasons why they don’t cycle - neither of which is particularly difficult to solve if the will is there.

Interestingly, when parents are asked the same questions, they also say that they would like their children to walk or cycle to school more. What differs are the reasons they give as to why they don’t encourage (or in some cases allow) them to walk or cycle. For most parents, it’s the high volumes and speed of traffic (whether real or perceived) that causes concern.

As a result, a sad irony has developed where parents who don’t allow their children to walk or cycle (but would prefer if they did) because of the traffic end up driving their children to school which then adds to the worsening traffic situation!

Obviously, improving the physical environment and reducing the levels of traffic around schools are also challenges that also need to be addressed if we are to change school travel behaviour.

Extending the traffic-free greenway network to link neighbourhoods to schools, providing safe crossings of main roads and lowering speed limits around schools and built up areas to 20mph will help make Derry safer for walking and cycling. A great start would be to look at introducing more crossings of the busy Limavady Road which currently has only two along its full two mile stretch.

At present, less than a third of primary school pupils in Northern Ireland walk or cycle to school. By comparison, in Britain, half of all primary school pupils walk or cycle to school. It is clear that there is potential for change.

The Northern Ireland Executive has acknowledged the gap. It included in its Programme for Government 2011-15 a target that, by 2015, 36% of primary school pupils and 22% of secondary school pupils should be walking and cycling to school.

The policy is changing but if the government is serious about achieving these targets then clearly more investment is needed.

From September, many children will be returning to school to find an exciting new project waiting for them. Thanks to funding from DRD-Travelwise and support from Derry City Council, Sustrans will begin a full-time ‘Bike It’ project in the city and district.

Sustrans’ ‘Bike It’ projects work with school communities to promote cycling to school and address such barriers.

Last year, Greenhaw PS became the first Derry school to experience the project, which delivered new cycle parking and on-road cycle training to key stage two pupils. The results were even better than expected, with a 25% increase in the number of pupils regularly cycling to school and an 18% reduction in the number of pupils who were driven to school everyday.

Echoing the comments of many in the city last week, Foyle MLA Pat Ramsey said about Minister O’Dowd’s decision on funding for new schools in the city: “We now have the opportunity to create an ambitious education facility in the Waterside area that will cater for future generations of young people from throughout the community.”

This decision, he said, had wide-ranging implications for the city. Now is the time to start working together to make sure that those implications are positive ones which will benefit not just the schools but the communities they are located in as well - and get our children active in the process.

Ross McGill is Sustrans’ Sustainable Transport Officer in Derry. For more information about Sustrans, see: www.sustrans.org.uk