Irish Times Column, March 2nd, 2023.
Until my children started going to school, I didn’t fully appreciate a key driver of transport’s growing climate impact. Dropping kids to school and activities is part of most parents’ daily grind. It is also one of the main factors behind the more than doubling of greenhouse gas emissions from Irish transport since 1990, far higher growth than any other sector.
The Census has tracked how children get to school since 1986 and the trends are eyebrow-raising. Then, half of primary school students walked or cycled, and one-in-five took the bus.
Now, 60 per cent of primary students are driven to school, and even in Dublin City the figure is 36 per cent. Modern children are accurately called the “backseat generation”.
UCC research found that kilometres travelled for so-called “companion journeys” doubled in the decade from 2009 to 2019, and was the main cause in the rise in car trips over that period. Now, 20 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions from passenger transport are for these escort journeys.
I don’t blame families for this. Indeed, mine reluctantly became a two-car household when my daughter started primary school. These choices are not explained by laziness or a disregard for the climate, but by the State’s neglect in providing safe walking and cycling infrastructure and a more accessible school bus service. The number of cars on the road has tripled since 1986, and in most cases it is simply not safe for children to get to school on their own steam.
I get particularly irritated when my daughter brings home high-visibility vests and worksheets on the Safe Cross Code, implying road safety is her responsibility, when the State has not even built a footpath connecting her school to the local town, despite parents’ pleading.
Addressing car dependency is clearly not just a priority for climate action: It is a major factor for child health, congestion, air pollution, and community connection, as well as quality of life for the whole family. Car traffic around schools pollutes the air in exactly the location where we need to protect vulnerable lungs. Moreover, running a family car is a huge expense, costing over ten thousand euros each year.
It is also a self-reinforcing problem. More cars mean it’s less safe to walk and cycle, forcing yet more car usage. I also suspect that the school drop-off is one of the factors preventing many parents from cycling or taking public transport to work. Ireland’s growing car dependency is in contrast to many European countries, which saw a peak in per-capita car usage 20 years ago.
The good news is that a paradigm shift in transport policy is starting to gather momentum. The most recent Climate Action Plan has acknowledged that switching to electric vehicles alone is insufficient to meet the rapid cut in emissions necessary to meet our climate commitments, and also fails to address wider problems created by car dependency.
One target in the Plan is a 30 percent switch in “escort to education” journeys from cars to sustainable modes by 2030. That is highly achievable, but will take coordinated effort from several agencies and departments.
Urban and rural travel require distinct approaches.
Firstly, denser housing must be a priority. Despite government policy to prioritise compact development, one-off rural housing still accounts for nearly half of new homes, perpetuating car dependency. Roads currently designed to prioritise the smooth flow of car traffic must be redesigned to be safe for children to walk and cycle. Protected cycling lanes should also be a rural feature and are common in some European countries.
Secondly, the school bus scheme needs an overhaul. School buses are an unsung hero of sustainable travel, transporting around 120,000 children each day. The scheme was introduced along with free secondary education by Donogh O’Malley in 1966 to give educational access to students living in remote areas. But the proportion of students it serves is falling, now only 16 per cent. In part this is because it not available to students living within 3.2 and 4.8 kilometres of their primary and post-primary schools, respectively, and furthermore, buses don’t serve many who do meet the distance criteria.
There are no silver bullets to solving climate change, but a fleet of modern, electric school buses serving any child who can’t get to school on their own steam is as close as we can get to a “win-win” solution to sustainable transport.