The past six months has seen dramatic changes to our transport networks.

Eamon Scullion is a Senior Consultant and Belfast Transport Lead at Arup, with 14 years’ experience in delivering transformational mobility projects.

Here he looks at how we must revisit our transport infrastructure, focusing on child-friendly design, and how Arup’s Active Schools Travel Index can help.

Eamon Scullion

Revisiting our transport infrastructure

To say 2020 has been a strange year would be somewhat of a misrepresentation of events. To an extent, it feels for a lot of us that we have been forced to hit the pause button on our daily routines and short-term life plans, forcing us to ponder the question: What will life look like when we once again hit play?

One of the most visible changes during the last six months has been the dramatic changes to our transport networks. Whilst we have observed plummeting traffic levels, we have also seen massive increases in the number of people walking, cycling and wheeling. People around the world have turned to active modes of travel in droves for both leisure and functional trips.

As a transport planner living in Belfast, which is the second most congested city in the UK, the problems associated with our status quo in terms of travel behaviour are obvious. Heavy car use has led to poor air quality, carbon emissions and substantial traffic collisions, and a lack of sufficient daily physical activity is linked to numerous physical and mental health problems, including obesity, anxiety and depression.

However, the problems of the present don’t need to be the problems of the future.  This recent surge in active travel uptake has highlighted the need for a step change in travel behaviour that can be realised both locally and nationwide. We must revisit our transport infrastructure and start by focusing on those who stand to gain the most, are still shaping their transport attitudes and habits, and will pass their views on to future generations: our children.

what is 'child-friendly design'?

We need to develop safe active travel infrastructure that is underpinned by child-friendly design - connecting our children to their schools. Not only will this allow us to build much needed resilience into our transport networks, it will help cities and towns manage peak congestion levels and introduce a welcome reduction of carbon emissions. It must cater for young people from every community and background and must provide more options than just driving for those living in underprivileged areas, especially within a city such as Belfast and its unique socio-political context.

The benefits of active travel for children’s health and wellbeing is significant, but it will also increase their road safety awareness and motivate them to opt for sustainable transport means when viable. 

When considering improved active travel infrastructure to schools, there are several questions which immediately spring to mind, such as: How do we define what areas need better access to high-quality infrastructure? How do we join the dots in the existing network to make it a feasible option for all children to walk, ride or wheel their way to school? Where are the areas that most require infrastructure investment?

Chris Hill Photographic
Image credit: Chris Hill Photographic

introducing the 'Active Schools Travel Index'

To address some of these questions and provide local governments with a practical mechanism to prioritise the areas of most need, working with local partners the Royal Society of Ulster Architects (RSUA), my colleagues and I have come up with a solution. We are developing a specialised tool that maps and analyses our towns or cities existing active travel infrastructure and evaluate the level of accessibility to each school in the specified area.

Schools will be assessed against a range of indicators and allocated a score. These scores will be weighted and combined to form an overall active travel accessibility score for each school, enabling them to be ranked and areas of need to be identified.

The Active Schools Travel Index will rely primarily on open source data, with the option to add more detail as available or required. The results will be displayed in an interactive spatial dashboard and will enable schools to be directly compared via overall score, as well as by individual indicator scores.

It is intended that the development of this Index will offer local governments visibility on how targeted infrastructure investment will make meaningful improvements to our active travel networks, by providing a clear understanding of where the gaps are in active travel infrastructure.

The pandemic has presented us with an opportunity, and it is up to us to take it. As a society we have a collective responsibility to help our children get moving, therefore the urgency to press ahead with transformative plans to boost our active travel networks could not be greater. The development of the Active Schools Travel Index will be key in unlocking the path ahead of us.

Active Schools Network
Image copyright: Arup