What can we do to make walking to school the norm?

By GreaterSport | 06 October 2020 | TAGS: walking, #WalkToSchoolWeek, GM Walking

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This Walk to School Week, we spoke to Annette Turner, Population Health Programme Manager at Tameside Council; Annette shares her views on how we can make the school run a more active and enjoyable experience and shares what’s been happening in Tameside to keep people moving.

The school run is often one of the most congested times of the day on our roads and streets and can be stressful for many people. This is all the more challenging with Covid as we try to physically distance. What’s your experience been?

Annette: Speaking as a mum, pre-Covid my experience of the school run was not positive. I know I speak on behalf of many parents when I say it was a particularly low point of the day. Stressful, rushed, unpleasant. Back then there was a very troubling temptation that many succumbed to, to blame parents on the school run for all that was wrong with mornings. Yet few people seemed to be asking parents what their experiences were, let alone listening to them. It was simply a case that they were the most visible and easily identifiable targets. It seemed to me that there were many other road users at the same time of day that stayed under the radar because they couldn’t be labelled. Parents are not the cause of problems at the time of the school run, rather they are just one of many symptoms of a far bigger problem with the way our society has evolved to impose a weekday routine that is no longer fit for the way we live and work. It concentrates our work and school life around impossibly tight windows of time. It’s overly simplistic to think telling parents they ‘should’ walk their children to school will solve the problem. Many would do so if they had the choice, and most know it would be better, but choice is not reality for so many.

During the early days of Covid I got the luxury of walking my daughter to nursery with fewer restrictions on my time. It showed me how things might be if we had that flexibility and freedom to work from home at times that could be fitted around my family’s needs and not vice versa. It’s employers being flexible, not just with parents, with all staff where it is practical to do so, to allow people to naturally stagger the times they work, to enable home working, to work and meet remotely and to avoid forcing everyone on the road at the same time. Covid has shown us it is possible, now it’s up to businesses and stakeholders to conserve and invest in what is good.

Can you share some of the things you have been doing in Tameside to promote a more active, safe, sustainable and pleasant school run?

Annette: In Tameside we have appointed an Active Workplace Officer who will be working with local businesses to support the change that is needed. In doing so we hope to alleviate some of the pressures created around rush hour both for parents and other road users. It’s a small start, a drop in the ocean, so we need support further up in the system to give it more strategic back up. We’re also looking at ways we can support active travel for schools, potentially looking at bike and scoot to school initiatives…but this is a work in progress and is just one small way we can add to efforts to make change. Of course it’s intertwined with all the other ways the system needs to flex to make it a reality, including how we can get scooters and bikes into the hands of families who might struggle to put food on the table.

Can you tell us about some of the other ways in which you’ve been helping to create more active environments in Tameside?

Annette: We have adopted an Active Neighbourhoods Approach to creating active environments in Tameside. We looked at the many different ways movement can be woven into daily life, the places it can happen, and who might share our ambition. We’re also exploring some of the ways we can enable it to happen more, through things that have an indirect impact, like litter and perceptions of safety. The main priority of our approach is to make activity more visible, to bring it out into the open, so people can see that normal life includes movement for work, rest and play. We’re systematically bringing people and partners together to share the vision to help bring it to life. It’s a slow burner, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. The great thing about sharing the approach is that other people have picked up the ball and run with it, so for example one of our domains in our approach is Active Streets, where we wanted to encourage pop up play opportunities for residents. We shared our ambition and progress with others who are now delivering related initiatives as part of our Covid recovery plans. People are building upon and owning the approach with us.

What are some of the benefits you’ve seen so far?

Annette: The Active Streets initiative has been reiterated into Quiet Streets, which has a slightly different focus. This is more about encouraging people to make the best use of their street with temporary traffic closures so they can play, exercise, or learn to ride a bike for example, especially for those houses where outside space is limited. In response to Covid we have seen other partners adapt the approach, for example leading socially distanced gentle exercise sessions with older people who have deconditioned during lockdown. The appetite for this is slowly growing and it looks promising that doorstep delivery of active sessions could become more popular. In addition, as our schools begin to reopen, the quiet streets guidance has been made available for those interested in closing off busy school gates at pick up and drop off time.

Are there any key highlights or learnings you’d like to share?

Annette: The journey to get the first Quiet Street was up and down. We had a few false starts due to Covid, and VE day plans had to be abandoned last minute. Eventually the approach and materials were passed on and adapted as part of Covid recovery plans and the first Quiet Street ran earlier this summer. Find out about it here. Find the latest iteration of the guidance we’re using online here. This was developed locally from a combination of sources and inspiration from Birmingham’s Active Wellbeing Society, Bristol’s Playing Out, TfGM’s Open Streets as well as a number of other initiatives including Jo Cox’s Great Get Together.

What more would you like to see happen in Greater Manchester to create more active, healthier environments and to improve the school run in particular?

Annette: Some of the changes that have come about through Covid have highlighted what was broken with our daily routines, and for some, the flexibility to shape working patterns around family commitments has freed up that much needed time to walk our children to school or nursery on quieter, cleaner roads, or to choose to walk or ride to work ourselves. We absolutely need more support to maintain that flexibility and that means helping businesses and employers to see the benefits to both health and wellbeing of staff, but also to their bottom line. We need to support businesses to continue to work remotely to prevent traffic hitting the roads unnecessarily; that could mean digital support and infrastructure, increasing access to more up to date technology and know-how, or even offering businesses courses to learn how to effectively manage remote teams.

We also need to get better at creating routes and greenways where parents can let their children walk, ride and scoot away from the traffic. This is more than lightly segregated paths next to noisy roads, or pavements alongside quieter streets. It needn’t be expensive and perfectly surfaced every time, a well-worn, maintained and signposted public right of way could be just as valuable if people knew where they were.

We also need solid litter prevention strategies to keep these routes clean, attractive, and enjoyable. No parent wants their child to walk or ride home through broken beer bottles and dog ends, and relying on Councils and community groups to pick it up is closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

In an ideal world we’d invest in the biodiversity of our hedgerows with the opportunities to take notice of wildlife (and perhaps wild food) along the way, learning as we go, and creating linear growing spaces throughout our neighbourhoods for communities to take pride in.

Any particular tips for others; be they council officers, parents and carers or schools?

Annette: We need to stop the blame culture. The answer to rush hour madness is not school gate initiatives penalising parents. No one group of people is the cause of the problem, they are the effect of it. The system we live in has placed too many people in the same place at the same time with little or no choice. If you can never do the school run without your car it’s largely not your fault - we all have unique circumstances that determine how we live our lives to a great extent. We need to shine a light on the things that force people into rigid working patterns to the detriment of family life and wider society. We have to repeatedly challenge what is unhelpful, like the 9-5 working patterns of the 1920’s that don’t fit with modern life.

This may be controversial but we need to respect the choices of people to use a car when they need to, and promote the message to choose to walk when they can. This doesn’t have to be every day, and you don’t have to pick on a particular journey. Choose what fits with your life when it feels right. If it’s the school run, the trip to the shop or just nipping to see a friend, if you decide to ditch the car on just one of those journeys it’s a step in the right direction. Do that enough times and you’re still doing your bit in a way that is manageable for you. We need to advocate flexibility and understanding in our approach and stop labelling people based on a single snapshot of their life. It’s not good sense to suggest that any one group of people get out and walk simply by virtue of who they are or the journey they’re making, rather we need to ask a broader variety of people which of their journeys could be changed most easily... and start there. In the meantime, it’s up to those in the system to continually find ways to make the best choices easier and more realistic, and fight the urge to make the situations where there is no choice, harder or more pressured for those in it.

Finally, how do you like to keep moving and how has that changed for you with Covid?

Annette: How I keep moving has always been shaped by the other commitments in my life, so it’s changed a lot over the years. Pre-Covid I topped and tailed my working day with a short walk by parking out of town to get to the office, and I tried to have walking meetings when possible. I didn’t have any other free time to fit it in around family life. I used to think that my ten minute walk to the office didn’t affect my fitness but when Covid hit I started running to make the best of my exercise hour, and I found that my walks had given me a really good head start. Nowadays, as I work from home, I choose to run because I’m not limited to a class time or reliant on getting to a specific location. Some days I run or walk to nursery to drop off or pick up, if it fits with my other commitments. Some days I drive to nursery then go on to a local nature reserve to do a 5k run before getting back to my desk for a flexible start. I make no apologies for using my car on those days because that’s when I prioritise my mental and physical health. On the days where it doesn’t make sense to walk, for whatever reason, I don’t try and force it, and I fight the urge to feel guilty. I accept that some days it’s feasible and some days it’s not. On the days where it is, we take our time and enjoy it. It has to feel like a choice and not a chore.

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