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 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:
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.