As another school year begins, the roads will become a lot busier. Not because the streets will be full of children walking to school, but because the roads around schools will be packed with cars ferrying primary school children to class. From an environmental, social and physical health perspective, this is bad news.
Since the early 1970s there has been a dramatic decline in the rate of children walking to school. Then, 40 per cent of children walked, in 1994 it was 24 per cent and it is now thought to be as low as 15 per cent.
This decline represents a lost opportunity for children to achieve the one hour of physical activity required a day for good health. To put it in perspective, activities such as walking to school can use more kilojoules than organised sport and other activities outside school. Little wonder we face a childhood obesity epidemic and increased incidence of type 2 diabetes.
Patterns established during childhood tend to carry into adulthood. Those who when young take up healthy behaviours, such as walking, are more likely to continue these practices as adults.
As every parent knows, children tend to model their behaviour on their parents. Children are more likely to walk if their parents walk - and parents are best placed to teach them to negotiate their neighbourhood safely. All children can be taught safety, but it is an incremental process that can take many months and years. Parents working together can achieve even more. There is something to the saying ''safety in numbers''.
This decline represents a lost opportunity for children to achieve the one hour of physical activity required a day for good health.
Without learning how to walk their neighbourhood, children are more vulnerable to traffic injury when they do start walking independently, when they start secondary school for example. Unless something is done to change people's behaviour, we will be creating another generation of children who are driven everywhere.
Children's independent mobility (travelling without adult supervision) is important as it provides a range of social and cognitive developmental opportunities that may not by provided by other forms of play.
Independent mobility helps them to learn how to deal with situations, make decisions, explore and have fun.
More children being driven to school also means more traffic congestion and pollution. The school run accounts for 17 per cent of the morning peak travel. We cannot keep building or expanding roads to cater for this when most children live within two or three kilometres of their school. Providing infrastructure for cars encourages and results in more cars. What we need is to use our existing road network more effectively.
Reasons given for the decline in walking include distance to school caused by urban sprawl, poor footpaths or crossings, time, poor public transport, concerns about safety and traffic, the convenience of the car - the list goes on. While the list may be long, we rarely hear about the parents who find it easy and enjoyable to allow their children to walk to school, or who take the time to teach their children how to navigate their neighbourhood by themselves.
Peer pressure and accusations of being a neglectful parent are barriers to increased walking. Lamentably, parents who happily allow their children to walk to school sometimes report feeling judged as bad parents, rather than being supported for doing so.
Changing family structures, both parents working outside the home and over-scheduled lives mean many parents feel they don't have the time to walk their children to school. Can we approach the time issue more creatively?
For many, time spent walking with children is not lost time but family time gained. As many committed walking parents will attest, children open up and talk more when walking. They find out a lot more about what is going on in their children's lives and what they enjoy as well as worries and concerns.
Creating more walkable neighbourhoods and getting more people walking for everyday purposes (school, shops, neighbourhood) saves time in the long run. More people walking means safer streets, which will reduce some people's need to drive.
Some parents choose schools that are most easily accessible by walking and where there are likely to be other children also walking to school. Parents can then share the task of walking younger children to school with other adults and save time on the days it is not their turn to supervise.
If we want to increase the number of children walking to school then we need others to also walk rather than drive for other purposes. We cannot expect parents to let their children walk if the rest of the community is hopping in their car for even the shortest of trips. Forty per cent of trips within the Melbourne metropolitan area are less than two kilometres, but most people drive rather than walk.
If those hesitant to walk among us walked a little more, they might be pleasantly surprised and find that the world is not as big, bad and horrible as they may have thought. If there are things in your area that need improving, talk to your neighbours, form a walking action group and make changes. If you drive, drive slowly around neighbourhood streets - children walking to school need to feel safe. Your neighbourhood is at your feet, step out and explore.
Ben Rossiter is the executive officer of Victoria Walks.
Does your child walk to school or has safety, work or distance prevented it? Chat with Essential Baby members in the "What do you think?" forum.