THE BLOG

Making the Walk to School Safer and Easier

21/10/2014 15:08 BST | Updated 21/12/2014 10:59 GMT

Today two children will deliver a 20,000 signature petition to number ten Downing Street. Sinead Bourne, aged 10, and six-year old Khadijah Jahan, will also hand over a large pile of letters from school children across the country asking David Cameron to make their walk to school safer and easier.

Sinead and Khadijah will be representing the scores of people who, like us, want government to recognise the importance of the walk to school. These letters are touching for many reasons. Children tell us that they enjoy the walk to school but they are worried about traffic and as one young person told us 'I cannot hear the birds singing when I am in the car.' These letters ask David Cameron to do something about the pavements and the conditions children experience on their walk to school. Quite frankly, I couldn't agree more.

Speeding traffic, a lack of safe places to cross the road and inconsiderate parking can all be barriers for walking. We at Living Streets believe it is within David Cameron's power to act.

Last week the government launched its Cycling Delivery Plan for consultation and although the media focused on two wheels, it was encouraging for all of us who get around on two feet. It included the ambition for 55% of primary school children to be walking to school by 2025 - the first time a UK government has set a target for walking to school. Though of course it is essential the resources are put behind this to make it happen - on which the Government is more coy.

This issue is important. One in three children are now overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school. Physical inactivity is now only second to smoking as the biggest threat to public health, responsible for not only making us overweight, but increasing our risk of chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and some cancers.

Over 70% of today's parents walked to school. Less than half of children walk to school today and of course those of us who are physically inactive in childhood are likely to grown into sedentary adults.

Explaining why she enjoys her walk to school, Khadijah says:

"It is very good for your health to do exercise. It does not cost any money and it is good for the environment. We always cross the road at the crossing and hold my mums hand so I am safe. I like walking to school because I like looking at the plants."

Despite this, there seems to be some debate about whether children really want to walk. Last week, Lord Darzi's Better Health for London report proposed the introduction of a 400 metre exclusion zone around schools for new fast food outlets, as a way to combat obesity in youngsters. It prompted Radio 4's Today programme to send an intrepid reporter to a school in south London to conduct a survey amongst its pupils. BBC reporter Zoe Conway was forced to conclude that school children today were too lazy to walk 400 metres to buy fast food, introducing an interesting paradox to the concept of nudge theory and behaviour change!

So you might wonder, if the prospect of a burger isn't an inducement to the country's youth to walk less than a quarter of a mile, how can we encourage them to walk to school?

Well for most children, a fast food incentive is not required. As we know through our work, many children enjoy walking to school. They enjoy the opportunity to spend quality time with their parents, siblings and schoolmates and as they get older, developing their independence and increasing their confidence.

Living Streets' Walk once a Week (WoW) scheme works with children, schools and local authorities across the country to encourage and support families to walk to school. We work with children, parents and school staff to identify the issues which make people reach for their car keys rather than their walking shoes.

Simple measures like lowering speed limits, installing safe crossing points on busy roads and addressing inconsiderate parking at the school gates all have an impact and as a result of these interventions walking rates typically increase by 23% per cent.

Children recognise these barriers themselves. Asked what would make their walk to school safer and easier, their responses included, "(If) People did not park their cars on the pavement", 10 year old Abbie, "If there was a zebra crossing at one of the roads next to school", Taylor, aged 10, "There was a no parking zone outside of the school", Millie aged eight.

So today Khadijah and Sinead will be representing every child who enjoys their walk to school. Living Streets believes every child who can walk to school, should be able to do so safely and easily. The government committing to their proposed target of 55% is a good place to start but we really hope David Cameron takes the time to hear the voices of the young people who have all played a vital part in expressing the need for the walk to school to be recognised as an important part of the past and an essential part of the future.