Cycling: Saddle up, kids, it's good for you

Very few children cycle to school, but plans are afoot to change that, says David Prosser

Did you know last week was officially designated as Walk to School Week? The initiative is the latest in a series of efforts to encourage parents to give up the school run - the walking week followed a successful Bike to School Week in April.

Safety is the issue most often quoted by parents who are reluctant to let children travel to school under their own steam. But driving instead overlooks another threat to kids' health. More than one in five boys aged two to 15 in the UK is overweight or even obese and the figure rises to more than one in four for girls.

Despite rising publicity about childhood obesity, the majority of children are still driven to school. Across Great Britain, more than 50 per cent of school journeys by five- to 16-year-olds are by bus, car or train. Some 46 per cent of kids walk, while only 1 per cent cycle.

Parental reluctance is not the only problem. Many teachers are nervous about promoting activity that parents could perceive as dangerous, or even about the prospect of bikes cluttering up school playgrounds.

Sustrans, the sustainable transport charity, wants to change all that. Last year it launched a drive to recruit 29,000 School Champions - one for every school in the country - to promote walking and cycling to school. The charity is recruiting steadily and hopes to hit its target by 2010. The idea is to encourage teachers, parents and children to think of cycling and walking first when it comes to the journey to school.

Schools with champions have arranged car-free days, cycling training sessions and cycling and walking incentive schemes. They've also developed school travel plans, working with Sustrans to develop maps that show safe routes to schools

This latter initiative - identifying safer routes to the school gate - is one of the most crucial parts of the whole scheme. It means that while the roads on which parents drive to school may seem dangerous, they're unlikely to be the ones on which their children would actually travel.

Reluctant parents may be swayed by two arguments. The Environmental Transport Association Trust says children driven to school are exposed to three times as much pollution as kids who walk or cycle. And a study by the Californian education board found children who walked or cycled to school achieved better academic results than those who are driven.

Sustrans isn't the only organisation working on increasing the number of children who cycle to school. Cycling England, the government-backed body set up two years ago to promote an increase in the number of journeys taken by bike, has a particular focus on encouraging the next generation of riders.

It is already working with schools in several areas of the country, with bike support officers operating in very similar roles to the Sustrans volunteers.

The early results of these schemes are remarkably encouraging. In many schools, Cycling England's involvement has resulted in fourfold increases in the number of children biking to work - albeit from a low base in some cases.

Even so, the scope of the group's work is limited for now - it operates on a tight £5m budget. The good news, however, is that money is available to schools themselves - if only they knew about it. Cash grants of up to £10,000 are available to schools to fund capital projects such as installing cycle sheds or CCTV to keep an eye on all those bikes. But the money must be claimed.