Monday 16 July 2018

70pc of school kids in this town cycle or walk to school - are they Ireland's happiest?

Stock photo
Stock photo
Children travel along Westport's greenway. Photo: Westport smarter travel
Geraldine Gittens

Geraldine Gittens

Two-thirds of Dutch children under the age of 12 walk or cycle to school. Good cycling infrastructure - and the fact that pupils live close to their schools - makes it an attractive mode of transport.

A Unicef report rated Dutch children the happiest in the world in 2013. One of the factors in this survey was the fact that Dutch children are trusted to ride their bikes to school, because it's safe to do so.

But there’s an Irish town that is similar to Dutch towns in terms of cycling rates - Westport.

Seventy per cent of school students in there cycle or walk to school.

They travel along the town’s greenway, a 2.5-kilometre route which was a disused railway line before it was upgraded.

All along the route lie most of Westport’s schools and housing developments.

“It’s phenomenal,” says Anna Connor, tourism officer at Mayo County Council. “We were lucky in that Westport is a designed town. All of our housing developments in Westport town have access onto the greenway. It’s brilliant for the schools and workplaces and it’s heavily used in the evenings for health purposes.”

“It’s pretty much a circular route around Westport town. The key housing estates and developments are all inside it.”

The improved wellbeing of Westport’s townsfolk is tangible, according to Ms Connor.

“It’s floodlit with LED lighting along the trail so that’s why it’s hugely appealing. Believe it or not, prior to the development, there used to be small examples of anti-social behaviour, but that got rid of all of that.”

“In addition to that, it was an enabler for other activities then. There is a multi-use games area, a skateboard park on the greenway, and an outdoor fitness area. The greenway enables for a lot more of that to grow.”

The figures for Westport make for brighter reading in our “obesogenic” environment, which according to Dr Donal O'Shea, the Health Service Executive's Clinical Lead for Obesity, occurs when it’s easier to take the car than it is to walk or cycle.

It is not unusual now for children in Ireland to need 40-inch waist clothes.

And the World Health Organisation has warned that Ireland will be Europe's fattest nation by 2030, with 89pc of men and 85pc of women being overweight.

Westport town is a “smarter travel” destination, and received funding from the Department of Transport in 2011 to make it just that. Limerick city and Dungarvan are also smarter travel destinations.

A huge team set about increasing walkers and cyclists to school in 2015 by running competitions, offering free lunches and launching the “greenest class” competition.

Some students were given cycle training where students were trained on and off road, for example.

Ms Connor added: “In 2011, we developed the greenway from Westport to Achill island, and it made sense then for Westport because it was a designed town many years ago, and it was felt it could be achieved. Our workplaces and residential areas were strategically located in the town, inside the greenway.”

“We found we could easily achieve it. The big Greenway was the stepping stone to encouraging us.”

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