Two wheels good, four wheels bad

ONLY A few decades ago, about 80 per cent of children walked or cycled to school – now the figure stands at just 20 per cent.

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Published February 12, 2007 by The Age 

Schools are encouraging students to ride a bike rather than a back seat, writes Margaret Cook.

AU — ONLY A few decades ago, about 80 per cent of children walked or cycled to school – now the figure stands at just 20 per cent.

So why the decline? According to Bicycle Victoria's chief executive manager, Harry Barber, it's partly due to parents "wanting to be nice" and their fears about safety. "It's ebbed away over time to the point where 17 per cent of morning peak-hour traffic during term time is kids being driven to school, despite most of those in the metropolitan area living within a two kilometre distance," he says.

There are also more practical reasons. Often schools don't open their gates until 15 minutes before lessons, so parents find it quicker to drop children off on their way to work than walking with them, returning home and then leaving for work themselves.

"We also haven't made it easy for parents and kids to walk," Mr Barber says. "We've found that school crossings aren't always on the routes that they use and there aren't always pram ramps on footpaths for parents with younger children."

As the numbers cycling to school decreased, bike sheds (for safe storage) were torn down or fell into disrepair, making cycling even less attractive.

But, encouragingly, times are changing. According to the Cycling Promotion Fund, bicycle sales recently outstripped vehicle sales for the seventh consecutive year. Almost 1.3 million bikes were sold in 2006, including for children and teenagers.

Reasons for the change include concerns about childhood obesity, greenhouse gas emissions and higher petrol prices.

Governments are also encouraging children to be more active. Last October, Premier Steve Bracks announced $4 million over four years for the Ride2School program administered by Bicycle Victoria. This includes $400,000 for bike-storage areas and $800,000 for new bikes for primary students – particularly those from disadvantaged areas – who have shown leadership in encouraging "active transport" (for example, cycling, walking, skateboarding, scooter, in-line skates).

So far, about 300 schools have registered with the Ride2School program, which is aimed at 10 to 15-year-olds. It encourages schools to set targets to reduce driving, promote "active transport" to parents, start bike clubs and organise "ride to school days" and cycling excursions. Schools also conduct "hands up" surveys of how students got to school on the first day of each month, then send the results to the Ride2School team.

Mr Barber says it's important that schools work closely with families and the community to encourage "active transport" – for example, by informing bike shops about the program and meeting police youth resource officers and local government transport officers.

Fairfield Primary principal Judy Walsh says the school is encouraging the entire school community to "make an extra effort to use active transport". On its "ride to school" day last November (organised by grades 5-6 students with water bottles donated by the local bike centre as prizes), 76 per cent of children walked or used bikes, scooters, skateboards, skates and even a unicycle.

"We also do the 'hands up' surveys and are finding that the percentages are growing each month," Ms Walsh says. "We expect this change to continue once our bike shed is built."

The school runs bike education programs and is working with VicRoads and Darebin City Council traffic engineers to establish neighbourhood routes, including curb extensions and raised walkways to slow traffic and give priority to cyclists and pedestrians.

Cambridge Primary School assistant principal Nella Cascone says it held a five-kilometre "Tour de Werribee" – staged over two Fridays – cycling through parkland for students, teachers and parents. Local police and Bicycle Victoria representatives attended and a local fruitererdonated apples. Cambridge also holds "ride to school" days, promotes active transport in its newsletter and plans to build a bike shed. "Previously the majority of our kids were driven but, since the introduction of the program, more are cycling and walking," Mrs Cascone says. "It varies – for example, there are more in spring and summer than winter – but we believe we've turned the corner."

The school conducts bike training and recommends that children (if not accompanied by parents) walk in groups. "Parents are realising the importance of children being active. However, there is a greater likelihood of them being involved if we make it fun and safe."

The national president of the non-profit Kidsafe, Nigel Webster, warns that children must wear a correctly fitted helmet to prevent head injuries. Kidsafe, the Royal Children's Hospital, Sydney Children's Hospital, Rosebank Helmets and the Amy Gillett Foundation are running a safe-cycling campaign for primary schools, including how to fit and wear helmets.

"We're not about preventing children from having fun or stretching the boundaries – but we want to stretch them in a safe way," Mr Webster says. "It's also important that adults model safe behaviour by wearing their helmets."