Green school runs: Why Wales needs to be more like the Netherlands

  • Watch ITV Cymru Wales' report by Hamish Auskerry

Wales has an ambition to be a walking and cycling nation, but less than half of Welsh primary school children and only a third of secondary children walk or cycle to school.

Although Wales was the first country in the world to pass an 'Active Travel' law with the aim of increasing levels of walking and cycling for everyday journeys, less than 1% of Welsh children ride a bike to school.

In comparison, almost half (49%) of all primary school children cycle to school in the Netherlands.

Penyrheol school recently won the 2021 Sustrans Big Pedal Award

To help address the problem, a cross-party group in the Senedd launched a toolkit for schools on Wednesday. It provides ideas for where they can find the money and support for setting up cycling projects to enable more children and families to enjoy a healthier, greener school run.

Penyrheol Primary School in Gorseinon recently won the 2021 Sustrans Big Pedal Award and has built active travel into the school's culture. 

From nursery, pupils learn about the rules of the road. Alongside these practical lessons, the school also provides access to bikes and help with maintenance.

Headteacher, Alison Jane Williams said: "We first implemented cycling for the children as a lunchtime club as part of a merit and reward scheme promoting positive behaviour and we quickly learned that so many children love cycling and love to be active.

Alison Jane Williams, Penyrheol Headteacher

"Over the years we've increased the amount of kit that we have and we've increased the capacity amongst staff to train the children to ride bikes.

"Staff have been trained to bring children on to balance bikes from nursery. We have transition bikes from reception to year one and all of our children by the time they reach year six, can ride a two wheeler peddle bike."

Alison praised the new active travel law and said it helped the school promote cycling.

She added: "The active travel really helped us on this journey and we now have a huge number of children who walk, cycle and scooter to school every day and to incentivise the efforts of bringing their bikes and scooters, they can use them throughout the day.

Less than 1% of Welsh children cycle to school

"So they use them freely on the school site during playtimes and lunchtimes and we now have cycle sessions for all classes as part of our curriculum provision."

Teachers say the impact on the mental health and wellbeing of their pupils has been marked - and for some their passion for pedalling remains even after they leave primary school.

One former pupil at Penyrheol primary has kept cycling since leaving year six. He said that it's great to "just to keep fit and make sure I'm healthy. It also inspires other people to do the same thing."

  • Why should I walk or cycle to school?

Walking or cycling to school could improve children's health. Wales has the lowest levels of physical activity in the UK. Being more physically active could lower the chances of childhood obesity or developing long-term illnesses such as type 2 diabetes.

Evidence also shows that children who walk or cycle to school are more attentive in class and are ready to learn.

Ditching your cars would also help improve air quality. Cars are a major contributor to carbon emissions with transport accounting for 16% of Wales' emissions. Emissions from motor vehicles are a serious threat to health.

Walking or cycling to school would also help reduce congestion. School runs put considerable strain on busy roads with all motorists noticing the difference in rush hour driving during school holidays. 

Huw Irranca Davies is the chair of the cross party group on active travel in the Senedd. He's hoping the new scheme will help tackle climate change and the challenges around health and wellbeing.

Huw Irranca Davies is the chair of the cross party active travel group

"We all have to do more", he said.

"There's got to be investment in infrastructure, which is happening at a pace - there's massive investment now in safe routes to schools for walking and cycling right across Wales, but it's got to be a partnership.

"It's got to be local authorities, governors, parents, headteachers and the children themselves."