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Walking buses in Hertfordshire: Impacts and lessons

Mackett, RL; Lucas, L; Paskins, J; Turbin, J; (2005) Walking buses in Hertfordshire: Impacts and lessons.

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Walking buses have been set up at many schools in Britain as a way of providing an alternative to the car as a means of travel to school. A walking bus is a group of children who walk to school along a set route, collecting other children along the way at ‘bus stops’, escorted by several adult volunteers, one of whom is at the front (‘the driver’) and another is at the back (‘the conductor’). Each walking bus has a co-ordinator who ensures that there are sufficient volunteers and registers the children who wish to use it. The report examines a number of walking buses that have been set up in Hertfordshire, the area immediately to the north of London. The purpose of the evaluation of walking buses is to establish what the effects of walking bus are, and, as far as possible, establish a methodology that can be used to examine systematically initiatives to encourage children to use alternatives to the car, such as cycle training and pedestrian skills training, as well as walking buses. The data collected for the evaluation exercise comprises two parts: a postal questionnaire to schools across Hertfordshire and more detailed research on five case study walking buses within the county. This report presents the results from these two surveys. In Hertfordshire, the number of walking buses grew rapidly from one in early 1998. Four years later, there were 68 in 41 schools registered in the county. One year after that, there were 26 at 22 schools registered. This suggests that the number may have peaked. The walking buses had an average of 14 children registered to use them, with a range from 3 to 41. On average, 10 children used each walking bus, escorted by three or four volunteers. The children ranged in age from Nursery (age 3-4) up to Year 6 (age 10-11) but there was a clear peak in Year 2 (age 6-7), with a tailing off amongst older children. Of the 26 walking buses for which detailed information was supplied in the postal survey, twelve had ceased to operate by the time of the survey. In nine cases this was because of a lack of volunteers to escort the walking bus. For three of them, nobody was available to co-ordinate that walking bus. Five walking buses closed because there were too few children. Three of these also had a shortage of volunteers. In only one case was the closure of the walking bus not associated with a shortage of one or more out of children, volunteers and a co-ordinator. Walking buses have not been closed because they did not achieve the objectives for which they were set up. For head teachers, the main objectives of setting up walking buses were to relieve traffic congestion around the school, and to increase walking, particularly to give the children more exercise. The walking buses were seen as fairly successful in achieving these objectives. When the views of the head teachers of schools that had set up walking buses were compared with those of schools that had not, it was found that the former had greater recognition of the social aspects of walking buses whereas the latter have greater expectations in terms of reducing congestion, and improving the children’s road safety skills and mental alertness. About 62% of the children using walking buses had previously travelled to school by car. Some children used the walking bus fewer than five days a week. Overall, the reduction in the number of children travelling by car seems to be about 50% of the number of children on a walking bus. On average, each child who previously travelled by car who switched to walking, walked for 22 minutes on the walking bus each time it was used. For a child that uses the walking bus every day, this is nearly two hours of extra physical activity a week. Putting these two concepts together, suggests that walking buses can make a significant contribution to children’s volumes of physical activity. Given that only a small proportion of the children at a school use a walking bus, it would not be expected that there would be an observable reduction in traffic, except, perhaps, in very specific locations, such as at the school gate. This lack of reduction in traffic is compounded by the fact that many of the cars would continue to be used by a parent travelling to work or elsewhere at the time of the school trip. Walking buses are perceived by all those involved, to have benefits for the children, the parents and the school, particularly the social benefits to the children and the more indirect benefits in terms of sending out a visual message as to the importance of walking. Some negative outcomes or disadvantages of walking buses were reported by smaller numbers of respondents. They centred on the perceived lack of benefits, time losses and negative social outcomes. Benefits or disadvantages to parents in terms of time saving or losses were seen to be important in maintaining participation on the walking bus. This becomes even more critical for those parents acting as volunteers. Implementation processes were seen as being important in explaining why walking buses do not attract more car drivers. The availability and location of volunteers often determines the route of the walking bus such that it loses its strategic capability. ‘Trailblazers’ do not necessarily create pathways for subsequent, more targeted, walking buses. Responsibility for maintaining walking buses rests neither with the school, nor with the walking bus co-ordinator. It could well be that walking buses need a ‘champion’ within the school if they are to be a long-term initiative. This, however, sits uneasily with their selling point as necessitating little school input. The contribution of the co-ordinator to the success of the walking bus should not be overlooked. The personality and organisational ability of the co-ordinator will have an impact on the operation and long-term future of the walking bus. The loss of an effective co-ordinator may well have an impact on the continuation of the walking bus. There are a number of characteristics of walking buses, which may be useful for explaining effectiveness and longevity. Formal or informal structures and benefits to volunteers are amongst some that have been identified by this evaluation exercise. In the schools in Hertfordshire, the key source of information about walking buses was Hertfordshire County Council, but the initiative to set up a walking bus often came from within the school. The vast majority of head teachers of schools without walking buses were aware of the concept. The main reason that walking buses have not been set up at these schools is the lack of parental interest or support. For some schools the nature of the catchment area would make it difficult to recruit enough children to form a walking bus. Otherwise the main problems are concerns about traffic danger and the lack of the head teacher’s time to start the process. Most of the schools which responded to the postal questionnaire regard children’s travel to and from school as a policy issue for the school. Of course, one reason that some schools did not respond to the survey may be because they do not regard travel to and from school as a relevant issue for them. The schools have taken or intend to take a wide variety of actions to address travel to school issues, including education and training of the children, setting up travel plans, and working with the County Council. This report illustrates the role and behaviour of walking buses in Hertfordshire. Given that Hertfordshire is an area where walking buses evolved earlier than many other parts of Great Britain, there may be useful lessons for interested parties elsewhere. In particular, it may help to stem the potential decline after the first cohort of children and their mothers have left the walking bus. There are a number of good reasons to encourage children to walk rather than go by car, in terms of their health and the environment, both in the short and long term. Walking buses can help to break down the barriers to walking perceived by parents and children, in terms of concerns about the children’s safety, competence and knowledge. Therefore, walking buses should be encouraged.

Type: Report
Title: Walking buses in Hertfordshire: Impacts and lessons
Keywords: Walking buses, Children, Travel to school
URI: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/144543
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