That walking and cycling is healthier for you than sitting in a car is not a surprising statement. But turns out that it’s healthier for you in another way. Stuff reports:

British research has found that children driven to school breathe in the highest levels of noxious fumes per minute, with those walking, cycling or scooting on the footpath exposed to less over the same period of time.

Kiwi researcher Shanon Lim said this is often a surprise to people, though experts have long-known that being inside a car doesn’t shield you from the exhaust of vehicles in front.

Other research found travel time matters. While a short walk can be better than the same time in a car, a long walk on traffic-clogged streets can boost air pollution exposure compared to driving the distance.

Lim and his fellow scientists wanted to know if personalised pollutant information could encourage kids and parents to switch up the school commute. To collect information, the team provided customised pollution-detecting backpacks to hundreds of schoolkids.

Pedestrians, scooters and cyclists get valuable exercise – a benefit outweighing any fumes, Lim said. Active commuters also cut the number of cars on the road, reducing everyone’s health risk.

The information saw kids nag their parents out of the car; after being presented the results, between 30-50% reported making a change.

Lim, now a University of Auckland researcher, hoped to repeat the project in New Zealand.

Government and transport agencies should be doing everything they can to get more kids walking and cycling to school because not only would it improve kids’ health, it would also help reduce congestion. Some of that will be about encouraging behavioural change – for both kids and parents – but some of it can also be helped through making it tangibly safer for kids to walk and cycle to school.

The Safe School Streets project in Grey Lynn: planter boxes, road art and orange hit sticks are used to slow traffic and make the street safer for local kids. Image source: Resilio

The issue of congestion around schools is also something I’ve certainly noticed with working from home more. Pick up and drop off times (and, actually, think about that phrase – what was it called back when most children got themselves to school?) are the only times I see the road past the local primary school get congested and many side roads also fill up with cars around then. This is despite the school zone only extending around 1km from the school, which is an easily walkable or bikeable distance for most – as long as the route feels safe enough.

The question of children’s transport options is also highlighted in recent census results. In 2018, for the first time the census asked about how people travelled to education. Looking at the data for 5-15 year olds in Auckland, it shows that over half are driven to school – with just 29 per cent walking or cycling:

Thankfully no children 15 or under reported driving themselves to school

As Stuff reported around the same time, the Ministry of Health had also begun collecting stats on this particular indicator as part of a broader picture of children’s health:

The ministry asked about forms of transport children used for the first time last year because it helped paint a picture of children’s overall health and the environment they were growing up in.

It was one of the 15 health ‘indicators’ the Government decided to report on annually.

In the same year, even the AA raised concerns about the issue, and identified the key fix:

Aucklanders have spoken out on the hazards families face getting their children safely to and from school. The concerns were raised in a geospatial survey run by the AA, with responses to be used in ongoing discussions with Auckland Transport. […]

“A large number of children are taken to school in cars … especially on wet days. Children don’t melt,” one wrote.

But AA spokeswoman Vanessa Wills said parents were worried.

“The summary we came to is that kids are being driven to school because there isn’t always safe walking and cycling infrastructure – and the numbers reflect that.”

The wider picture is the huge potential lost inside of a generation. Active travel stats for New Zealand children are far below what their parents enjoyed, as Stuff reported back in 2015 – and don’t reflect the ways children prefer to move, as covered in a major 2022 article called Shaking Up the School Run.

Back to the more recent Stuff article:

“Pretty much, you’re always going to get higher pollution exposure if you’re in a vehicle compared to if you’re walking or cycling… more so in New Zealand, because we’ve a lot of older vehicles,” Lim said.

“The vehicle doesn’t protect you from other vehicles. If you’re in congestion, you’re right behind another vehicle and you’re the closest person to the source of the emissions… People are really surprised by this.”

Even though people walking and cycling are outside, they’re a bit further away from a vehicle’s tailpipe on the cycleway or footpath, Lim explained.


The UK research found that schoolkids walking and cycling along quieter streets and through parks breathed in even fewer fumes, Lim said. “We produced walking maps so they could see where they were exposed to the highest pollution.


Lim – a member of health advocacy group Healthy Auckland Together – said children are relatively open to public health interventions. “They’re great disseminators and advocates for change… They’re the most vulnerable to air pollution.”

The ways to reduce air pollution – particularly walking and cycling – will also reduce fossil fuel usage, fight climate change and boost fitness and wellbeing, Lim said.

In short, empowering more kids to walk and cycle would be a great win-win for all of us.

An addendum, in the light of Monday’s post about the preemptive pause on Transport Choices funding:

In 2021, a global survey of children’s health gave New Zealand a “D” for active travel, with only five countries performing worse than we did – but at the time, change was finally on the way:

“This D Grade for Active Transport to School is a reminder of how much work remains to be done, says Kathryn King, manager urban mobility, Waka Kotahi.

“Fifty-five percent of trips to school are made in cars with 578,000 students driving, or being driven, to school each day. Those trips are a major contributor to emissions and one of the reasons a significant focus of the government’s $350M Transport Choices programme focuses on more sustainable, active travel options to school,” King says

“We’re confident this investment over the next two years will make a difference to how kids get to school and the Active Transport to School grade next time it’s assessed.”

Let’s hope the new government and Waka Kotahi sort out that funding delay as soon as possible.

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  1. Parking education and enforcement around schools, Now.

    No lengthy, expensive planning, consultation or building needed, just protect the footpaths, crossings and bike lanes to help kids get in and out safely.

    1. 1000%. Selwyn Street outside Onehunga Primary is awful at pick up/drop off times—parents leave their cars unattended and blocking our driveway (which we share with 2 other properties), parked on yellow lines, on the berm, etc.
      We have written to the Principal who was receptive to our concerns, and there was an article in the Onehunga Community News a while ago which served as a reminder to parents to drive and park courteously when picking up/dropping off, and that the community constable had walked around one day saying the same thing. But it’s still happening—at the end of the day there are too many cars and a hostile road environment in the area.

      1. A couple of schools in my area have arranged drop off lanes at the school kerb.

        It helps because it encourages an orderly one-way circulation without actually having to build a gyratory.

        1. The most successful designs include drop off areas at a distance from the school, and prevent drop offs near the school. There’s excellent guidance available for this sort of planning from overseas. Where it’s implemented the advantages are immense and no one would go back. Not sure why NZ is dragging its feet.

        2. Absolutely with Heidi on this. Our kids were driven to supermarket car park and accompanied to Primary school, not too far away, or accompanied the whole way. Walking School Bus is the formal alternative, but shared accompanying is possible. The time walking and talking is quality family time, not ‘wasted’ anxious driving time.

          MoE standard Pick-Up & Drop-Off zone inside school grounds at front door, that everyone else has to walk across, should be limited to permit-only for Mobility Access – never big enough for a meaningful pick-up capacity.

        3. “MoE standard Pick-Up & Drop-Off zone inside school grounds at front door, that everyone else has to walk across, should be limited to permit-only for Mobility Access – never big enough for a meaningful pick-up capacity.”

          I was the detail design transport designer for two new primary schools in South Auckland in recent years with (for Auckland conditions) pretty good active mode networks around them.

          But the baseline I was given… Ugh. A certain large bread and butter consultancy had done the initial permitting of the schools, and assumed large on-site car pick-ups and drop-offs. I had to push hard for them to be minimised a bit more than intended (no chance to push for a “why do we even provide this” level re-think) and to untangle car access from safe pedestrian and cycle access as much as possible. Not helped by the fact that MOE basically considered their responsibility for transport ending at the site edge (to be fair, we got them over the line for some external upgrades eventually, but it was frustrating).

          It was a very much a “Car Status Quo with some active mode cherries on top” approach. And I bet that whatever happens, if I ask some teachers and principals there in a few years they will tell me “Oh, but those pick up and drop off areas are too small!”. Sigh – you get what you prioritise…

  2. I might add any education programme should also focus on other languages of recent arrivals where walking to school in their home country isn’t seen as the thing to do. Particularly Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean communities.

    1. 15 years or so ago I organised translations of information on walking to school ( mainly explaining the Walking School Bus concept) into 20 + languages, including those you mentioned, to be used by the then city councils and ARTA. I would hope there has been continued support for our communities who do not have English as a first language.

    2. You mean in the countries where children get themselves to school by public transport or walking in a regular basis, dropping kids off is not a thing in the countries listed.

      I’m confused at what you’re comment means

      1. Perhaps it is for many over there, but it seems the ones that come here are often either entitled or otherwise. Big gas guzzling luxury SUVs are the norm etc (although to be fair a lot of EVs are making an appearance now). One High school in particular that I know very well never had any traffic problem, then about a decade later it’s roll became roughly half Chinese/Korea etc and ALL of the roads in the area rapidly became completely car parked around school time with SUVs. Note in the evenings the traffic was ok as the school pickup was in that 3-4pm period before rush hour. Coincidence? I think not.

        1. My observation when living in Auckland was opposite. Schools with a higher portion of immigrants appeared to have a higher portion of kids walking.

          A quick trip to any regional city in NZ, where immigrant populations are much smaller, will quickly highlight which demographic is most likely to drop the kids off in an SUV.

        2. I don’t think “Asian drivers bad” is a constructive take on this.

          I do the school run by bike, with my 5 year old riding too. On a nice day there are maybe 10 bikes and scooters parked up.

          The car parking situation is pretty nuts there too, regardless of where the family is from.

          I see people driving their kids less than 1km, well within zone.

          This all comes down to driving culture, not ethnic culture.

          Free parking, relatively low traffic (suburbia), direct access to the school gates, safety concerns about OTHER drivers, parents that don’t walk or bike, both parents hurrying to work, low marginal cost of driving a short distance, desire to fit in, don’t want to appear poor, trip chaining because work / swimming / daycar etc is too far to walk.

          These are so many small effects which accumulate to make this the default choice.

  3. From and Auckland Council
    Air pollution is the leading environmental risk factor worldwide. World Health Organization (WHO) estimates show that around seven million deaths are attributable to air pollution. People with pre-existing respiratory and heart conditions, diabetes, the young, and elderly people are particularly vulnerable to air pollution effects. Each year, air pollution causes more than 300 premature deaths in Auckland and results in increased numbers of reduced activity days and hospital visits, and higher usage of medications. It is estimated that the social cost of air pollution in Auckland is $1.07 billion per year. Air pollution can affect the atmosphere and climate directly through the warming and cooling properties of some pollutants.

  4. We are number 6? Well, that sounds like almost world leading! I am sure our new government will make sure we will improve in the ranking and won’t stop defunding woke bike lanes and unprofitable busses until we are number 1!

    One additional note:
    Once kids grow up, they will most likely keep their learned behaviour, i.e. if you walked or biked to school, you are more likely to walk and bike than if you were going by car everywhere.

    1. As a cycle advocate that was always my worry about focusing on kids cycling – while very virtuous and deserved, it faces the fact that NZ, parents of school age kids often don’t cycle and even worse, didn’t even cycle as kids themselves.

      So they have all the (real and imagined) dangers of riding a bike in their heads from our cultural attitudes – and yet often don’t even have the experience of having ridden bikes as kids themselves. It makes the sell “let your kids ride to school!” so much harder…

    1. Fun fact – our new chinese EV has PM2.5 sensors and displays the value as we travel around. Mostly it stays on 7/18 (inside/outside).

      Every now and then we get blasted by a diesel. The outside sensor spikes into the hundreds, and once stopped at 999. No idea how accurate it is – but i do not want to live downwind of any busy motorway.

      1. You don’t have to live near a motorway to inhale fine particulate matter – or nitrogen dioxide, which is even more harmful.

        The windowsill of my apartment on the sixteenth floor of a central city building was lined with ‘soot’ and something similar happened when I lived in Pakuranga.

        I also lived 50 metres from the Northwestern Motorway in Western Springs. I can recall the noise rather than any soot but would have inhaled more nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter given how close the house was to the traffic.

        The annual road toll is more than 2,000 – or don’t people whose deaths are associated with air pollution from vehicles count? (That question isn’t aimed at you.)

        I lived in Shanghai for seven years until 2020. The PM2.5 reading was published daily, though the local definition of ‘good’ air quality was more generous than that of WHO.

        In New Zealand, deaths and hospital admissions from air pollution are but collateral damage from the way we live. We are poisoning ourselves and those around us and we just don’t care.

        On a brighter note, enjoy driving your new EV!

  5. That backpack study sounds amazing. I reckon there’d be no shortage of Auckland schools keen to take part. Maybe even the one in the header image?

    (Ironically, that school is still waiting on a long-promised neighbourhood street upgrade, which AT has put on pause. At least it currently has a localised safety treatment out front, of a kind that could be easily and quickly rolled out for any school that asks. The potential for simple and widespread progress is so huge!)

      1. Inside Looking Out is only correct in that AT still keeps spending money on the projects, generally to rustle up excuses, so they’re not really paused at all.

  6. As a long time reader of the website (but first time commenter), thanks Matt for continuing raising important transportation issues in Aotearoa. I’m the “researcher” quoted in the stuff article and reading the positive comments on here has reinforced the need for us to keep pushing to provide more active (and public) transport options in our city.

    I’m currently trying to get the backpacks to Aotearoa, so watch this space. Keep up the good work!

    1. can we make some here ?
      Where i live we have an extensive (free) Lora network allowing low cost comms. Depending on what you are monitoring, we could make em cheap enough to spread widely. “backpack” sounds expensive !

      Thinking about it, very few of our kids walk or ride. Belay that.

  7. I work at hamilton girls high school – 1600+ students and less than 5 bikes on the rack most days (some of which I think are teachers). Must be some kind of record for lowest bike:student ratio anywhere.

    1. There was considerable resistance to making Ward street, near HGHS, safer for pedestrians and cyclists. The number of cycle lanes across bridges has been reduced, even though a high school student was killed on the Bridge Street Bridge in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Ruakura Road into the city has become less safe as intersections and lanes have proliferated. A previous mayor campaigned on ‘roads for everyone’, i.e. for cars.

      1. To be fair to the council, Ruakura (after several deaths, and years of being miserable to ride on) now has a separated two line bike road, with a seperate pedestrian path.

        1. In the 1990s Ruakura Road was really great. There was only one intersection (for Ruakura). Cycling from the university there were only a few one lane round abouts to navigate on the way into town.

    2. I remember vaguely about maybe 8 bikes in the rural primary school I went to in the 70’s (someone showing us his Chopper!). Considering most arrived by bus from further afield, probably not too bad.
      Think I read that the 70’s in NZ was pretty good for school cycling but it’s become one of those irrational fears based on a few horror stories like flying in the US of A….oh and helmet laws kicked in.

      1. Huge cycling mode share at my highschool around 1980 ish.
        The roads were way quieter than now.
        Helmet laws, and the arrival of cheap japanese 2nd hand cars resulting in way more cars on the roads tipped the scales from safe to scary.
        $200/tank of petrol will tip it back again. RUC’s for ICE announced by Simeon pre election will help also.

        1. Yes indeed. Actually after I wrote my post I realised it was more like a school in a rural small town, big part of the population close by (on the flat) and then the wider area. Most would of walked to school, a handful cycled, quite a few dropped off by car and the rest by bus, as pretty sure there was only one bus run though packed full. Yes a bike shed was a thing.

  8. Important to improve walking/cycling uptake by schools in NZ. It dawned on me this morning that perhaps one of the big drop off’s in cycling with kids and casual/not so keen cyclists is once your bike gets a flat tyre it is seldom or slow to get fixed. Busy parents and or the cost and effort to get it fixed. These community bike workshops are great for that.

    eg (Mangere)

  9. Been trying to get the footpath that leads to our kids school fixed for 3 years now. There is a water leak which means it is constantly covered in mud, loads of kids a day have to walk around it on the road. AT couldn’t give a crap, the best they have done in 3 years is have someone come clean it which lasted a few days.
    Then they send a guy to the school to promote walking when their footpaths are not even safe!

  10. It is strange and alarming how “the school run” to pick up an drop off kids has become so ingrained and glamorize in NZ culture. It is seemingly thought of as a very noble deed and that not picking up your kids is somehow a sign of bad parenting. The demand for the closest parks have people parked up well before 2pm, do these people not have jobs? Or do they just need a safe space for alone time to scroll on their phones and pick their nose? If 58% of kids are getting picked up and dropped off no wonder NZ has a productivity problem

  11. Thanks, always good to read about mode shift. Even if we aren’t doing it.

    Some datapoints.
    Our local rural ish school of ~280 students (year 1-8) generate travel of 638,000 person kilometers a year. (eg each kid, or driver KM)

    Much of this is beyond walkable or ridable, so cars, busses are needed.
    Many parents drop off and pick up their kids – this is 4 car trips – 2 return runs.

    Modelling kids old enough to walk and ride their distance to school who currently are driven – we could save our school community >$60K / year in car transport costs. 6.5T of Carbon avoided a year – was smaller than i was expecting.
    As EV’s go up Carbon costs goes down.

    Our local kids to school cycleway just got defunded, so we’ll leave it in the modelling stage i guess.

    1. “Our local kids to school cycleway just got defunded, so we’ll leave it in the modelling stage i guess.”

      In my best “New Government” voice:

      Don’t worry – Mill Road will have cycle lanes, now that we are bringing it back to support growth and housing prosperity for South Auckland!

      Oh, sorry, Mill Road doesn’t help you get your kids riding to school? Well, don’t worry, East West Link in Onehunga (that’s kinda South Auckland, right) will ALSO have cycle paths!

      What, that doesn’t help you either? Well, don’t worry, the new cross-harbour tunnel we are expediting will not have cycle lanes. But in only a decade or two, we may or may not be able to free up a traffic lane for bikes on the Harbour Bridge!

      What? That doesn’t suffice either? Gee, you are hard to please. Probably not one of our voters, are you?

      1. yeah, not Waka Kotahi defunding, this was an Auckland Transport fund, unfund. Wayne Browns cuts not new govt austerity.

        Our kids will learn to drive soon enough.

        1. Yes, AT. And indeed even Brown’s cuts aren’t the reason; those are miniscule compared to what AT is wasting on poor decisions about road widening instead of reallocation. The real culprit in all this is AT’s refusal to follow the TERP when setting the programme.

  12. Re-The UK research found that schoolkids walking and cycling along quieter streets and through parks breathed in even fewer fumes, Lim said. “We produced walking maps so they could see where they were exposed to the highest pollution” And also cycling to school.
    Many innovations you mention are available in NZ But, there is an issue of personal safety about students using more ‘Eco-friendly’ to get to school in ‘quieter’ public spaces that have not been introduced as part of the [NZ] transport infrastructure discussion. NZ cycling environments and regulations differ from that in the UK.
    Most schools have demolished their bike sheds here. The paving in many of these spaces is still poorly maintained and ‘nasty’ to navigate.
    The ‘quiet’ spaces suburban walkways and small green-spaces are the prime locations where people like the man who stalked and murdered Lena Zhang recently hang out to find victims. – Students who live locally to their school grounds do walk to school where there are safe walkways, footpaths and school PT routes. But few cycle to school. Its considered too unsafe in most instances.
    For many students, both parents are in paid employment, and do not have a choice in this matter. Because of a tight time schedule, and a need to comply with a legal responsibility to ensure their child is delivered to school premises and therefore safely present on school grounds. This is often because it is important that in order to keep their employment, they need to avoid any risk of their work day being disrupted. Students are usually driven by a parent who then continues to their employment which may be located some distance away. Students often go to after school or before school programes and activities, depending on the what parents’ work schedule requires.
    It is discouraging for parents support decisions to allow their children to cycle or walk to school, particularly for secondary school students, some of whom would have cycled, but now drive themselves to school.
    NZ Police seem to have made it a priority to have a presence at the school gate for a good reason. The school rush hour can be a ‘hot spot’ of hostile /stressed motorists. Personal safety concerns impact the decisions for many parents who would otherwise consider changing to more eco-friendly transport modes when deciding to drive their children to school. Angry, over-entitled and frustrated people do not magically become considerate drivers when they get behind the wheel. This documentary was made a few years ago but raises some issues which are still valid now in the NZ road use environment.
    Often authorities ignore these issues until public protest “emotionalizes” messages and actions with alarmist narratives, which stalls calm and efficient approaches and neutralizes progress made by public conversations, and sometimes, at worst, captures resources into less productive narratives and decision making pathways. Considering this reality good and safe cycling and walking infrastructure, if using eco-friendly transport options are to be taken up, has gone from a”nice to have” to a health and safety necessity in NZ’s current, more diversely and intensely populated social and economic environment. A transport infrastructure which caters for more Eco-friendly transport modes is still very much a contested public work in progress and and the fact is that most PT in NZ is overburdened with commuters at the time of day that they are most needed, or can be unreliable to non existent in some outer suburbs and communities, means that NZers just have to find their own transport solutions. Because of these reasons mostly it has become easier and more importantly the safer option for parents to drive their children to school which has created its own issues.

  13. The AA, as obviously the Great Cartel of the private motor vehicle, should not be allowed any opinion on this scientific reality.

    We are literally shortening our children’s lives every time we put them in a car.

    Already our generation of parents has a lower life expectancy than grandparents, arguably due to fossil fuel emission inhalation.

    It is time to de-wheel, deep breathe, and walk around following the trees; hoping that we won’t be extinctified by an errant driver of a much larger object than our primary school children!

    I ponder (to Rodriguez’ 1970 “I wonder” rythym)

  14. Already our generation of parents has a lower life expectancy than grandparents, arguably due to fossil fuel emission inhalation.

    Oh dear. I guess actual facts don’t matter to you.

    1. Your life expectancy is higher than your grandparents thanks to fossil fuel. You, unlike your two Grandads, are not dying of tuberculosis caused through poor heating in winter. You are not dying from poor food Hygiene thanks to refrigeration.
      There are a whole lot of things that extended peoples lives thanks to oil products.

  15. Choosing to walk or cycle not only benefits our physical health, but also contributes to a healthier planet. By choosing these environmentally friendly transportation methods, we are making a positive impact on air quality by actively reducing our carbon footprint. The simple act of walking or cycling allows us to enjoy fresh air, connect with our environment and breathe less pollutants.Jul. It is a small but powerful step towards a cleaner, greener future for both ourselves and the environment.Jul. So, lace up those sneakers or jump on a bike, every step or pedal brings us closer to breathing a fresh, uncontaminated breath.

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