More walking + less driving = healthier children

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The new school year kicks off next week, but the Heart Foundation has already been doing its mathematics homework – and learned that boosting children’s physical activity through infrastructure improvements can be achieved at a relatively low cost.

New Heart Foundation research released today shows that for an average investment of less than $450,000 per school, key routes in their catchment areas can be easily upgraded so that walking to school becomes safer, easier and more appealing to children and their families.

Currently only 19 per cent of NSW school children reach the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity per day. Meanwhile, one in five NSW primary-school children and one in four high schoolers are overweight or obese.

These statistics could be improved if more children walked, cycled or scooted to school. However, the trend is towards the opposite, with an increasing number of NSW primary-school children getting to and from school by car – up from 46 per cent in 2010 to 54 per cent in 2015.

Traffic is a key concern for parents and caregivers. Many know that walking to school is a healthier option, but they worry about being able to cross roads safely on the journey to and from school.

With this challenge in mind, the Heart Foundation commissioned research to explore potential pedestrian-infrastructure improvements around three existing NSW public schools, including the estimated cost of these works.

The schools were selected based on urban context – Newcastle High School (inner urban), Gosford Public School (urban) and Kellyville High School (suburban) – as together they broadly represent the types of communities where most people live in NSW.

The researchers mapped out ideal walking routes within two kilometres of each school. They then identified crossings and intersections along these routes that could be made safer through enhancements such as reprogrammed traffic signals and new pedestrian crossings.

The study concluded that significant improvements can be made at a relatively low cost. For example, upgrades to 10 key intersections and crossings around Kellyville High School could be achieved for just $300,000. The average cost per school in the study was less than $450,000.

Heart Foundation CEO NSW, Kerry Doyle, said this is very affordable in comparison to average road project costs around Australia, which according to one federal government report run at around $5.1 million per lane kilometre.

“What we learned from the research we are releasing today is that creating more walkable school precincts through targeted urban design need not be a complicated or overly expensive exercise,” Ms Doyle said.

“The state government is currently investing in NSW travel infrastructure, building roads and improving public transport. The Heart Foundation is asking that the government also invest in infrastructure that encourages walking and cycling – because these too are important modes of transport, and will have the added benefit of enhancing people’s heart health,” she said.

“We’ve done the sums and for a relatively low cost, active travel can be made safer, easier and more attractive, encouraging families to pursue this option rather than jumping in the car for the short ride to and from school.

“This is one sure way to boost children’s physical activity, which can have big benefits for their physical and mental health, as well as their social and intellectual development.

“Active children tend to take this habit with them into adolescence and adulthood, and there is overwhelming evidence that physical activity helps prevent disease across a person’s life. So the infrastructure improvements proposed in this study could have knock-on benefits for our health system, as well as for entire communities through safer roads and less traffic congestion.

“This is a win-win for NSW families, schools and the public overall.”

The study reinforces the Heart Foundation’s view that there should be more investment in programs and infrastructure that would encourage active travel to school – walking, riding, cycling, scooting or catching public transport.

In particular, the Heart Foundation is urging the next NSW government to:

  • Provide direct grants to schools to run an Active Travel to School program;
  • Fund roles to work at a local level with government agencies and developers, with a view to identifying and improving active travel infrastructure within two kilometres of schools – for example, widening footpaths, enhancing signage and adding pedestrian crossings;
  • Implement a School Precinct Infrastructure Improvement Program.

The “Active Travel to School” study was conducted on behalf of the Heart Foundation by Architectus.

Media enquiries: Siobhan McMahon, Media Manager NSW/ACT, Heart Foundation

M: 0478 313 6567 E: siobhan.mcmahon@heartfoundation.org.au