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Learning to leave the car at home

IT has taken a while, but parents are beginning to learn a simple message coming from a growing number of schools: don't use your car to bring your kids to the school gates.

According to the Green Schools Ireland programme, an environmental awareness scheme running in over 3,600 primary and secondary schools around the country, there was a 28pc reduction in the number of car journeys to school from September 2011 to September last year.

A survey conducted by the programme, which is run by An Taisce, also revealed that the number of children walking to school rose by 27pc, while the numbers cycling to school increased by 46pc.

But while shifts to more sustainable and environmentally-friendly modes of school transport will be welcomed, safety concerns still regularly clash head-on with best intentions.

Many parents will not allow their young children to cycle, even walk to school if they have concerns about the lack of proper infrastructure, such as cycle facilities, footpaths and pedestrian crossings.

Jane Hackett, national manager of the Green Schools travel programme, says the issue of safety remains a critical one, adding that there is an urgent need to invest in retro-fitting the environments around schools with essential safety infrastructure.

"It is difficult to achieve long-term modal shift if footpaths, pedestrian crossings and cycle facilities are unavailable," she said.

"There is a need to ensure permeability within neighbourhoods, towns and cities so that children are safe walking and cycling to school."

But one of the more interesting findings of the Green Schools survey is the apparent reduction in car journeys to school in rural schools between September 2011 and September 2012, says Ms Hackett.

"A large percentage of rural schools have little or no infrastructure, yet they have achieved the same result as urban schools. Both achieved a reduction of car journeys to school of 15 percentage points," she said.

"This is as a result of the Green-Schools methodology, which embeds the programme in the school and also the 'champions' (teachers) and committees (students, teachers, parents) who are the drivers for change in the schools.

"Therefore, rural schools are achieving a lot considering the barriers that they face."

But in congested urban environments, a lot more could be done to beef up cycling skills, according to Mike McKillen, chairman of national cycling lobby group Cyclist.ie.

He criticises cycle-training programmes for youngsters like those run by Green Schools or Dublin City Council's Bike Start scheme because they are conducted entirely in schoolyards which, he argues, are "no use for the real world".

Mr McKillen says that 14 members of Cyclist.ie are certified trainers under the UK Department of Transport's National Standards Cycling Skills (Bikeability) training scheme, which is conducted on-road and in traffic, with children taught how to manage roundabouts as well as signal junctions.

"The major deterrent to rolling out the UK National Standards training programme here is the attitude of the RSA (Road Safety Authority), which advises that children under the age of 12 should not be out on public roads without adult supervision. We find this totally unacceptable and antediluvian."

GREEN SCHOOLS INITIATIVE

He adds that parents are crucial to long-term cycle training in accompanying their children until they are confident enough to do the trip themselves. But since so few parents cycle, they often need training themselves before they can know that their kids are doing it right, he said.

Ms Hackett also cites the natural importance of parental involvement in encouraging more pupils to walk and cycle, but if a school supports a Green Schools initiative and motivates the children to walk or cycle more, then the parents get more involved.

The most successful initiative in the programme is Walk on Wednesday (WOW), which aims to encourage kids to dedicate one day a week to walking to school.

"They are easy to implement and build up a culture of walking in the school," says Ms Hackett. "We build on this during National Walk to School Week every May with National WOW day.

"This year was our fifth year running National WOW day and we set a challenge to get 20,000 walking on the day. We surpassed that this year with over 32,400 children walking to school on the day."

But given the rising levels of child obesity, some argue that a harder line could be taken against those parents who stubbornly refuse to leave their cars at home, particularly if the journey to school is less than five kilometres.

Cyclist.ie, for instance, met with Transport Minister Leo Varadkar and urged him to put in measures requiring school boards to introduce mobility management plans that would actively discourage parents dropping kids at the school gates, thus forcing them to walk at least the last few hundred metres.

But according to Mr McKillen, the minister felt he could not go down this route.

Irish Independent