Around the world of school travel

In this special guest post, school transport expert Sian Thornthwaite looks at the challenges of the school journey around the world and finds an increasing amount of common ground. Sian is the founder of specialist school transport consultancy STC and co-founder of Interchangeability, an international school transport conference taking place 15-18th June 2014, near London.

Pupils walking along a cliff-side to a school in China (Atlantic Cities/Reuters)

The walk to a school in China (Atlantic Cities/Reuters)

Anyone working in passenger transport in the UK is aware that school admissions season is upon us, meaning transport applications and challenges over entitlement to free or subsidised travel. Does a child live just over the 3 mile distance, should you measure it from the gate, front door, child’s bedroom door or his bed?! When is a school the nearest one, when is a walking route walkable?

Despite being a wealthy western country, the UK is mean with its transport offer to young people – only 10% qualify for free school travel, outside the PTEs few have any concessionary fares, and the offer is being drawn ever tighter. Authorities are withdrawing post 16 transport, removing free travel for those attending faith schools or increasing charges in an attempt to balance diminishing budgets. There is little doubt that for pupils and parents in the UK the school journey will become more difficult and expensive in future years.

Despite this, few young people in the UK face an impossible journey to school. Many will complain of traffic levels, road safety, fears of abduction, or the inconvenience for parents of having to take children when they work. These fears and problems are real and many countries make life considerably easier – half of pupils receive free travel in the States, a third in Sweden – but what of elsewhere?

Globally more than 57 million primary school age children are out of school (UNESCO, June 2013) – not through truancy, school phobia or absenteeism – but often because they cannot get there. Half will never set foot through the school door; a further 23% will drop out. One major reason is their journey to school is too long, difficult or dangerous.

My transport career started in Northumberland 30 years ago. One of my first tasks being to check transport contracts for children living on Lindisfarne, where tides dictated whether they went to school that day on the mainland, teacher came to them, or they boarded. However, the inconvenience of tide times pales into insignificance compared to journeys for many young people where damaged infrastructure, flooding, armed conflicts and wild animals, not to mention extremely long distances all contribute to being unable to get an education.

Recently, I’ve been fortunate to work with education and transport providers in China and the Middle East. Such countries are expanding their passenger transport systems and building new schools at dizzying speed, yet there as here concerns about both personal security and road safety feature strongly. There is ongoing discussion about how children with special needs are included. In developing cities as here sustainability, congestion and pollution are major concerns and the peak hour demands of the school journey a major contributing factor. Escalating transport costs and rapidly rising rates of childhood obesity are also concentrating minds around the world.

UK children may not have to brave wild elephants as their Sri Lankan counterparts do on their school journey; nor do transport planners here have to think too hard about designing bus services to cope with 40+ degree temperatures as in Abu Dhabi, but whether delivering passenger transport in Dubai, Delhi, Denver or Dudley there’s increasingly common ground.

Parents’ and pupils’ concerns are universal – access to education, increasing costs, timeliness, quality of service, personal security and safety. Policy makers face the same challenges of reducing road congestion, tackling childhood obesity and balancing limited budgets against rising expectations. All must recognise that passenger and school transport matters.

School transport, school planning, special needs, working and consulting with young people, travel training, marketing bus services to young people, and dealing with the media will all be themes covered at our upcoming school transport conference June 15-18th 2014, near London. Discounts are available on day rates and full conference for pteg members.

Sian Thornthwaite

Ten years of the pteg Support Unit: Part three

In the last of a series of three blog posts, pteg Support Unit Director Jonathan Bray concludes his look back over ten years of the pteg Support Unit.

Ten years of pteg: the way we work and the way cities will work in the future

Evening city scene - Liverpool

Focus on what transport does for people, economies, cities, the environment and society.

The way we work

  • ‘Train hard, fight easy’. You need your stats, your evidence, your best arguments in place before you start to engage in a policy debate.
  • If you want to achieve policy change you need to be sharper, more relentless and be better at strategy than those who seek to defend the status quo because the incumbents always have the advantage and usually have greater resources.
  • Get the right staff. When your resources are limited and everything you do should be better than the incumbants (see above!) you need to make sure you have the right staff – so we put the time and effort into recruitment and got the right staff.
  • Press every button. It’s hard to know exactly why suddenly old policy consensus crumbles and new ones are established – so press every button available to you from reports, use of the media, stakeholder engagement – the lot.
  • Don’t commission research as a displacement activity or leave whoever is writing it to their own devices. Or let it sit on the shelf when done. Go through the pain barrier with whoever is working on it to ensure it fits the bill and then use it as the bedrock for the work you do in that area for the next couple of years at least. And find ways to get people to read it once it’s published.
  • Don’t go on about transport too much. Transport people love transport detail. The rest of the world doesn’t care. They are interested in what transport does for them, their economy, their cities, their environment, their society, the world they live in. Focus on that.

Building our reputation and effectiveness

pteg reports (Picture: Brainstorm Design)

Our reports have set a direction for emerging policy areas, like Total Transport (Picture: Brainstorm Design)

The Support Unit isn’t big, pteg may not always be liked – but we are good at what we do, we are a force to be reckoned with, we’ve saved our members millions and we have made the weather across a range of urban transport policy issues. Some of what’s been achieved is covered elsewhere in the previous parts of this blogpost, but it’s also been gratifying how we’ve been able to set a direction for emerging policy areas through focussed research and policy documents and through painstaking work to get internal and external stakeholders on board. Three examples:

  • In my view our work on social inclusion and transport over the decade (and in particular on young people in the last few years) has been the most lucid, consistent and focussed from any UK body in setting out the key challenges and how best they can be addressed
  • Our 2011 report on ‘Total Transport’ remains the primary document on pooling vehicle fleets and budgets
  • Our work on the opportunities for transport from the devolution of public health responsibilities is encapsulated in a hub on our website which provides the best introduction out there to local transport authority officers on what they can achieve in this area.

Smart cities / smart grid / smart transport

What seemed very far away now seems much closer. Cities with smart grids based on renewable energy powering largely electric transport systems. Mobile phones giving access to all forms of transport (from rental electric cars and bikes to public transport). Roads which are more social spaces than channels for cars. And this future is starting to form itself in big cities like Berlin. These kinds of developments transform the whole nature of the transport debate and open up some exciting opportunities for transport authorities to take the lead in guiding these changes in a way that maximises the benefits. There’s more on all of this in our recent blogpost on ‘Three global transport trends that should reshape our cities’.

Electric car, Berlin

Smart cities: there for the taking

So near…

Our city regions are not so far as it might sometimes seem from emulating what London takes for granted. Not in terms of underground rail networks and the scale of provision overall – but in getting the key building blocks in place. If the city regions can gain more say over rail and bus – then smart ticketing can fuse the two into the same single network that is the basis for London’s successful transport system. From there our cities can kick on to go smart and offer comprehensive total mobility packages, electrify transport systems in the most cost effective way and transform urban centres into more sociable, sustainable and prosperous places. It’s there for the taking.

Jonathan Bray

< Read Part two in the series ‘Ten years of the pteg Support Unit’, focusing on the unstoppable force of devolution.

< Read Part one in the series ‘Ten years of the pteg Support Unit’, featuring top ten highlights of the last ten years plus the influence of London.