Posted by: Gregory | July 7, 2015

Getting to school safely

Last week, the Cook Strait News ran an article about making sure that kids can safely walk to school.

In the 1980s more than 50 percent of children would walk or cycle to school and just a third would be dropped by car, Cr Free says.

She says that these days those numbers have flipped and she would like to see a return to the days when the majority of kids would walk or cycle.

We’re suffering through a generational change. Parents started worrying about kids getting hurt, or worse, on the way to school and started driving them, which makes the areas around schools more unsafe than they were.


But it’s not all the fault of the parents, as it turns out. This post on StreetsBlog depicts an 18-block walk through Calgary that would shame parents into driving.

Yehuda Moon cartoon

But Turner wasn’t satisfied with the cartoon’s cheeky conclusion that parents are making bad decisions. “Too often, these discussions blame PARENTS,” he tweeted, “not URBAN DESIGN.”

To illustrate his point, he tweeted “a photo primer in how urban design in an inner-city community encourages parents not to even think about letting their [kids] walk.”

By the way, Turner’s daughter is trying out the walk to school because the 18-block journey, which takes six to eight minutes in a car, takes 55 minutes on the school bus. She’s the first on and the last off, commuting two hours a day to get 18 blocks. It takes half an hour to walk it. Last year, her parents drove her every day, but now they’re trying the walk.

On my last trip back to Calgary, I lamented the pedestrian infrastructure where we were staying. It’s not all bad, but much of the design has the same car-centric planning that exists in New Zealand.

Many of our arterial roads act as barriers, especially for those attempting to cross using pedestrian signals. Additionally, residential roads near arterials will often fill up with traffic trying to avoid congestion. This has the effect of making those intersections unsafe for children attempting to cross.

NZTA Research Report 420 is aimed at schools to develop a travel plan and provides some baseline information on the issue in terms of congestion:

Congestion is estimated to cost the Auckland region $755million per annum (ARTA 2009). Higher fuel bills, lost time and productivity, uncertainty and poor air quality have direct economic costs to individuals and businesses, while health impacts and stress are examples of less tangible costs (in monetary terms). To most people, it is obvious that congestion levels in urban areas are tangibly worse during the school term. The Auckland Regional Transport Authority (ARTA) estimates that a third of morning-peak trips (7-9am) in Auckland are to school (ARTA 2007), and in Christchurch, 34% of morning peak-time travel is education related (Greater Christchurch 2008). In the UK, the 2008 National Travel Survey found that at the peak travel-to-school time of 8.45am on weekdays during term time, 2 in 10 (20%) car trips by residents of urban areas were generated by the ‘school run’ (DfT 2008). In the US, estimates from multiple cities indicate that the motor vehicle traffic generated by travel to and from school adds 20-30% more traffic volume to the roads (PBIC 2007).

And safety:

An unpublished ‘crash analysis system’ (CAS) analysis focusing on injury crashes has been carried out by Transport Engineering Research NZ (TERNZ), as part of a previous analysis of school bus safety. Many of these crashes (albeit an unknown proportion) are likely to be related to education-related trips, as they occurred during school travel times.

The results of the analysis were as follows:


  • Time period: 1987 2008
  • Age of injured person: 0 17 years
  • Times of day: 7 9am, and 2 4pm, excluding public and school holidays.

NZTA RR420 Table 2.1

The bulk of the report goes on to develop strategies for improving process and implementing safer access. It utilises a traffic-signal visual analogy to indicate status and urgency for categories.

NZTA RR420 S4.3.4.1

A few case studies are worked through at the end, showing clear relationships between actions and intended rationale, however lacks actual implementation and comparison of results to expectations. I’m unaware of follow-up work to this, but even the intervening five years would be too short a time frame to see a clear change in accident statistics.

I see it as similar to the tree-planting proverb though. Sure, the best time to have started in on safety improvements was a decade ago, but the second best time is now.


  1. Another good article on an important topic … thanks Greg.

    Safe walking access to local schools was a primary reason why we chose our current suburb and residential location. Wellington schools, especially Intermediates and High Schools tend to be quite large and so far from many suburbs meaning walking access is naturally quite difficult for most. For example, in contrast to my suburb, Karori does not have ANY public Intermediate or High Schools with many kids having to bus or be driven (leading to significant traffic such as around the Basin Resource).

    Despite the genuine efforts being made to improve school safety and accessibility through improved urban design, I also think the “Compact City” strategy that drives our district plan and residential housing strategy is fundementally based on higher and higher future population densities. This inevitibly leads to higher and higher traffic levels and so arterial roads (and nearby residential roads where arterial roads are overloaded) must become more difficult to cross (just look at the at-grade crossings around the Basin Reserve near the schools). High land prices also make it difficult (if not impossible) to relocate or expand some schools to bring them closer to their catchment.

    Of course the safest transport thing to do is to grade seperate traffic from pedestrians (i.e. bridges/underpasses for roads or footpaths) but, apart from the cost, this often runs against current “best practice” urban design which seems to prefer to slow traffic.

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