Arup and the Royal Society of Ulster Architects announce the launch of the Active School Travel Index for Northern Ireland, a new joint initiative aiming to measure and enhance school accessibility by walking, cycling and wheeling.
The project’s ultimate aim is to encourage a greater number of children to use active modes of travel and embed daily exercise into the lives of NI residents. The launch comes as this week marks Living Streets’ Walk to School week, a five-day walking challenge for primary schools, the aim of which is to raise awareness of the importance of physical activity and sustainable lifestyles.
The Active School Travel Index will initially use open source data to identify the most crucial areas in need of infrastructure investment by assessing schools in NI against a range of indicators. These include active travel catchments, existing infrastructure, and the grade and quality of paths. Each school will then be given a score, which will subsequently be weighted and combined to form an overall active travel accessibility score, enabling schools to be ranked.
The Index aims to directly combat a number of prevalent social issues in NI, including childhood obesity, mental wellbeing pollution, and congestion, as well as reducing carbon emissions to combat climate change. Belfast’s traffic congestion issues are particularly severe, ranking second in the UK behind London for congestion, despite not being one of the top ten most populous cities. Meanwhile, data reveals that over half (57%) of primary school children in NI do not meet physical activity guidelines, with a quarter (25%) overweight or obese.
The implementation of the Index will paint a picture of the true performance of NI active travel networks and use data to show where both minor and major interventions could lead to improvement, helping better inform decision-making to make efficient use of available resource. Underprivileged areas and schools will be identified so they can be targeted for improvement through the provision of child-friendly infrastructure.
Infrastructure Minister, Nichola Mallon MLA, said:
“I am really delighted to see this report as it will help my Department better target resources where they can make the most difference. Getting more children to walk, wheel or cycle to school will bring benefits right across the Executive’s Programme for Government outcomes; it will support a green recovery by developing healthy travel habits across the generations and it will make the journey to and from school much more enjoyable for everyone. This is a very welcome step in addition to the many efforts we are making to create better places and healthier people.”
Ciarán Fox, Director of the Royal Society of Ulster Architects, said:
“As we prepare to mark Clean Air Day on 8 October it is a natural time to reflect that despite many years of good initiatives to encourage children and their parents to walk, cycle and wheel to school, the number doing so remains remarkably low. All the encouragement in the world won’t work until families have confidence that the active route to school is safe and welcoming. That can only be achieved through changes to our physical environment. With the Active School Travel Index, we aim to establish an evidence base to help prioritise interventions which will unlock much more sustainable travel. The index will identify geographic areas where investment can deliver the biggest gains and help those most in need.”
Eamon Scullion, Senior Consultant and Transport Lead at Arup, said:
“We at Arup are very proud of this project, which places the wellbeing of society’s most vulnerable at its core. Children’s lack of sufficient daily exercise is a grossly underreported issue which can negatively impact them for the rest of their lives. Anything we can do to raise awareness of this societal ill is a triumph and we are going one step further by looking to rectify it. Not only does daily exercise bring physical benefits, but research indicates that 20 minutes of exercise per day cuts the risk of developing depression by 31%. It is therefore imperative that infrastructure and culture in Northern Ireland facilitates an active lifestyle from a young age.”
RSUA has written to the Infrastructure Minister offering to present the paper and explore ways of developing the index. RSUA has also written to the Education Minister to request their support with regard to the use of anonymised pupil postcode data, cycle and wheeling infrastructure within the grounds of existing schools, and the inclusion of active travel consideration within design briefs for all new schools or enhancement programmes.