October is Walk to School Month, a global event to celebrate the benefits of walking to school and identifying the barriers that get in the way of more children being able to walk to school. In this blog we look at the law around ‘walking to school’ and see if there is more that could be done from a legal perspective to encourage walking to school

Only a few decades ago, most children and young people in the UK walked to school. The figure has now fallen below 50%. There are fewer schools, and an increase in the distance that some have to travel, making it difficult for some to walk to school. More parents are taking their children to school by car, and in many areas in Wales, it can be unsafe to walk to school for different reasons.

The shift away from walking comes at a time when many of us, adults and children alike, don’t get enough exercise. A recent report by the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee of the National Assembly of Wales outlined many of the challenges facing young people today in getting enough physical activity, and the health risks associated with lower levels of activity.

So what is the law about walking to school in Wales?

Travel to School and the Law

How you get to school in Wales is a choice for you and your parents (or carers) to make, taking into account the different options that are available to you. These options could include walking. When you make the decision about how you will get to school, you might also think about travel arrangements that your Local Authority has to provide. The Learner Travel (Wales) Measure 2008 (the Measure) sets out the law around travelling to and from school safely.

The Measure doesn’t tell you whether you can or can’t walk to school – but it does explain when you will not be expected to walk to school and when the Local Authority should provide free transport for you to get to school. This depends on your age, your school, how far your school is from your home, and whether you have any other additional needs or requirements.

Walking to School

If you live less than 2 miles from your nearest suitable school (if you’re at primary school) or less than three miles (if you’re at secondary school) based on the ‘shortest available route’, then the Local Authority doesn’t have to provide transport for you to get to school. These distances are called ‘walking distances’. This doesn’t mean you have to walk to school, but the distances are considered ‘walkable’.

To be an ‘available’ route, it must be safe for ‘a learner’ who doesn’t have a disability or a learning difficulty to walk, with or without an adult (if it’s appropriate for you to walk the route alone). Local Authorities have to test walking routes for both ‘physical’ and ‘social’ dangers to make sure they are safe.

Physical dangers include things like pavement parking, narrow, uneven or broken pavements (or no pavements), how fast traffic travels, and whether there have been many accidents, whether there are safe places to cross the roads, and whether there is street lighting.

Social dangers can include things like known hotspots for anti-social behaviour, the risk of ‘stranger danger’, or places that are known for drugs.

The Local Authority should also talk to you and find out what you think about ways of getting to school. They should find out whether you think a route is safe or not and whether that makes a difference to you walking to school. They should take action, alongside partners like the police, to look into your concerns and act on them where appropriate.

If a route is not ’available’ because it isn’t safe, and there is no other safe walking route available, or if you have additional learning needs and cannot walk the route, the Local Authority must make other arrangements so you can go to school. This might be free transport such as a bus or taxi but an alternative might be for the Local Authority to make a walking route safer so that you can walk to school.

A Healthier Wales – Ensuring safe routes for walking to school?

Given the health benefits of walking to school, is there anything more the Local Authorities and Welsh Government should do to make it easier to walk to school? The Measure places a duty on Ministers and Local Authorities to promote sustainable forms of travel, such as walking and cycling. This could mean that instead of providing a free bus to school, they could make walking routes safe to encourage more people to walk to school.

The Welsh Government has also set out in legislation, such as the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act and the Active Travel Act, an ambition to make a healthier Wales by encouraging healthy lifestyles and activities. It wants to tackle the worrying trend in reduced physical activity levels and prevent the serious health problems that can develop from people not taking enough exercise.

Ditching the car or bus in favour of walking or cycling is considered an important way of increasing physical activity and improving health, while also addressing concerns of traffic congestion on our roads, near our schools, and the emission of pollutants into our air. At the moment, the law focuses more on when a Local Authority has to provide free transport to get you to school, rather than making it safer for you to walk to school – but perhaps new law such as the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act will see changes in future.

For more information about International Walk to School Month, including a range of resources, visit Living Streets.

For an easy read version of the Learner Travel Measure, please click here