Last week marked the end of the school holidays in Sydney and a resumption for many of frustrating levels of congestion as the ‘school-run’ resumed. Well over half of school children were driven, which is roughly double the levels when many of their parents would have been attending school, 25-30 years ago. How have we arrived at this situation and what can we do? High-school represents the start of a new adventure, part of which is associated with getting to/from the school, which in turn involves a number of considerations; the need to get there on time, constraints associated with after-school activities, travel costs, physical exercise, promotion of independence and social interaction on the journey to/from school etc. More altruistically, this represents one of the main opportunities to promote sustainable travel habits, which children can hopefully take forward into their adult lives before the temptation of car travel becomes too strong.
Such were the ideals we embraced as we planned with our son, how he would get to his new high school, some 5.2 km away within the inner west of Sydney, an area not devoid of public transport options. Using Google maps, we discovered he could get there by car in 12 minutes, bicycle in 21 minutes, public transport in 48 minutes and walking in 56 minutes. Given he had a heavily laden rucksack with expensive equipment and sports bag to carry, several steep hills and busy roads to navigate, we quickly ruled out walking or cycling. What about the public transport option, which involved getting him to a station, where a contracted school bus would do the rest? Day 1, we tried this option. Unfortunately, the bus turned up late to the station and he ended up being late for school, hardly a great start. What about coming home? On the way home, following last lesson sport, he was required to change back into school uniform, which subsequently meant he missed the ‘strictly on time’ bus. Net result - we had to pick him up. Day 2, we persisted assuring him these were ‘teething issues’. Things went smoothly until the journey home, where the ‘strictly on time’ bus from the day before picked him up 20 minutes late, a common occurrence according to the ‘regular’ users. Day 3, we drove him to school and picked him up after installing an Uber app on his phone in case of emergencies.
What lessons can be taken from this? First, public transport is pretty decent if you live close to a train line and need to get to/from the city but it is inflexible, unreliable and quite constraining for anything outside this even for short distance travel. For school travel, there is the additional bonus that in most cases it is free or heavily subsidised in Australia. However, freedom of school choice, combined with changes in settlement patterns, has led to increasingly complex school travel and public transport has struggled to keep pace. Ironically, this is one area where the oft-criticised Americans have our number with dedicated school bus services that get into the neighbourhoods. Arguably, the catchments for (some) high schools are so vast, this may be impractical in some cases but certainly not all. Second, there is some disconnect between school perspectives on certain issues and promoting independent travel – for instance, the insistence on wearing an expensive school uniform to/from school is hardly compatible with riding a bicycle or walking to/from a train station in the searing heat. Third, why in this day and age of laptops and iPads do we send kids to school laden down with a back-breaking rucksack full of books that have been blamed among other things for increased visits to the physio? Fourth, we cannot overlook this is an impressionable age, when a lot of habits and attitudes form, which is exactly the time when we want to ensure we provide great public transport services or risk losing the next generation to the allure of the private car. It is possible, evidenced by Northern European cities in particular, where the numbers of children being driven to school are around half those of Sydney.
As an epilogue to this we have figured out a compromise solution involving driving/light rail/walking, which gets our son there in 25 minutes. Building this sort of multi-modal flexibility into trip planning apps, could be a useful addition. Looking further into the future, perhaps this is a ready-made market for autonomous travel, although this could lead to more cars on the road if we’re not careful. Oh and by the way, our son can’t wait until he’s 16, so he can get his Ls!
Stephen Greaves is a Professor in Transport Management in the Institute ofTransport and Logistics Studies at the University of Sydney.