An award-winning school travel programme that helps tackle carbon emissions in Northern Ireland has increased the proportion of children walking, wheeling and cycling to school, while reducing the numbers being driven – new figures have revealed.

The Active School Travel Programme, run by sustainable transport charity Sustrans, has worked with more than 200 schools over the past year to buck the worrying trend of most primary school children in Northern Ireland being driven to school. Sustrans is funded to deliver the programme by the Public Health Agency and the Department for Infrastructure until July.

At the end of the 2020-21 school year, the number of children travelling actively to school at participating schools increased from 31% to 43%.

At the same time, the number of pupils being driven to school fell from 61% to 50%.

After one year in the programme, the number of children completing the Chief Medical Officer recommended amounts of physical activity for at least 60 minutes each day increased from 26% to 41%.

However, the problems of congestion and air pollution around school gates continues to worsen as more children than ever are being driven to school. Government statistics across Northern Ireland show that the number of primary school pupils being driven to school has risen to 68%, despite nearly half of these children (46%) living within a mile of their school.[2]

It is estimated one in five cars in the rush hour are doing the school run.

Beth Harding, Sustrans Active School Travel Manager said: “We are delighted with the results of the programme over the past year, especially in light of the additional challenges set by Covid. It is also clear evidence that we can reverse the trends of children being driven to school.

“The 209 schools we have worked with in 20/21, however, represent just a fifth of the total schools in Northern Ireland. There is so much more we could do with a programme continued beyond July 2022, including providing safer infrastructure for schools to tackle the overall trend.”

School principal Fiachra Ó Donghaile of Gaelscoil na Daróige, said: “We wanted to reduce pollution and congestion and increase exercise. The Active School Travel Programme has helped us to embed new travel habits and has encouraged a significant number of families to engage in active travel.”

Infrastructure Minister, Nichola Mallon said: “I am delighted that the results of the Active School Travel programme over the past year show that this programme, jointly funded by my Department and the Public Health Agency, has been successful in encouraging children from participating schools to choose to travel actively to school.

“I would encourage more families and children to make the move to more active ways to get to/from school. Walking, wheeling or cycling to school improves children’s health, confidence and concentration as well as teaching them the rules of the road and how to walk and cycle safely. Active travel not only benefits our own individual health but also helps to tackle the climate emergency by cutting down on traffic congestion and reducing air pollution thereby improving the quality of life for everyone in Northern Ireland.

“We all need to encourage each other to continue making the shift towards active travel modes of transport as a way of travelling especially for those shorter journeys.  Together we can bring real lasting change to our society by creating greener, cleaner and healthier places for us all.”

Dr Hannah Dearie from the Public Health Agency said: ‘We are delighted to work in partnership with the Department for Infrastructure and Sustrans on the Active School Travel programme. The programme is designed to help increase physical activity levels, in line with Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines. As many as one in four children aged between 2 and 15 years old are overweight or obese in Northern Ireland and programmes like this are helping to reduce these rates. The programme is fun, safe, interactive and has the further benefits of supporting children’s mental health.”

From Sustrans surveys the vast majority of children (80%) would like to travel actively to school.

Sustrans believes every child who can and wants to should be able to safely walk, wheel or cycle to school.

The Active School Travel Programme provides the school with a planned programme of activities throughout the year, both in and out of the classroom, and direct delivery from a dedicated Sustrans Active Travel Officer, with the aim of getting more children walking, cycling and wheeling as their main mode of transport to school.

A number of pupils are also offered on-road cycle training to enable them to cycle safely to school.

For more details see the 2020-21 Summary Report to find out more about how the Active School Travel Programme is successfully working to increase the number of children walking, wheeling and cycling to school in Northern Ireland.

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