It shouldn't be this hard to get children to school

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My son's school is 5.2 kilometres from home. So why is it so hard to get him there?

The end of the school holidays in Sydney means the resumption of a frustrating level of traffic congestion as the school run resumes.

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 to 30 years ago. How have we arrived at this situation and what can we do?

High school represents a new adventure, part of which is associated with getting to/from school, which in turn involves a number of considerations; punctuality, constraints associated with after-school activities, travel costs, physical exercise, promotion of independence and social interaction. More altruistically, this represents one of the main opportunities to promote sustainable travel habits, which children can hopefully take forward into adulthood.

Travelling to and from school is not so easy for many.
Travelling to and from school is not so easy for many. Photo: Jay Cronan

Such were the ideals we embraced as we planned with our son; how he would get to his new high school, 5.2 km away within the inner west, 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 walk in 56 minutes. Given he had a heavy rucksack with expensive equipment and sports bag to carry, several steep hills and busy roads to navigate, we 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? On day one we tried this. Unfortunately, the bus turned up late to the station and he ended up being late. 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.

On day two, we persisted. Things went smoothly until the journey home, where the "strictly on time" bus picked him up 20 minutes late, a common occurrence according to the regular users. On day three, we drove him 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 constraining for anything beyond this, even for short distances.

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.

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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 example, 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 age of laptops and iPads do we send kids to school with a back-breaking bag full of books? Finally, we cannot overlook this is an impressionable age, when lots of habits and attitudes form, which is exactly the time 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, we have reached a compromise solution involving driving/light rail/walking for our son which gets him to school in 25 minutes.

Building this sort of multi-modal flexibility into trip planning apps could be a useful addition. Looking into the future, perhaps this is a ready-made market for autonomous travel, although this could lead to more cars on the road.

By the way, our son can't wait until he's 16 so he can get his Ls.

Stephen Greaves is Professor and Chair in Transport Management at the University of Sydney Business School's Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies.

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