ITC considers children and travel

Do we need to rethink transport policy towards children?

The Occasion

Habits and attitudes developed at a young age can often have a profound effect on our behaviour in later life. In the transport arena, our childhood experiences of travel and of different modes shape our choices as adults. Recent statistics have shown striking changes in child travel patterns in the UK over recent decades, with children travelling less independently, walking less, and generally becoming less active. Concerns about safety and security seem to be driving parental attitudes towards their children’s travel, while little training exists at present in terms of helping children to use public transport. What might this mean for transport policy as a whole, and is there a case for trying to reverse some of these trends?

To debate this important topic the ITC hosted a Discussion Evening on 26th April 2016 chaired by ITC Commissioner Kris Beuret OBE, at which a new ITC Occasional Paper was launched. Almost 70 guests attended and the subject was introduced through talks from a distinguished panel of experts comprising: Nicola Butler, the Chair of Trustees at Play England; Heather Ward, Honorary Senior Research Associate at UCL; and Simon Craven, Special Advisor to the Chief Executive of Go-Ahead Group.


Children and transport – key issues raise by the speakers:

  • Nicola Butler explained the problems associated with children’s inactivity and how play could be used to encourage active travel. She observed that today’s children were becoming less active and spending more time indoors than previous generations. This, she suggested, was resulting in anxiety problems and poor physical health, leading to health problems in later life that were placing an increasing burden on the NHS. Play and active travel were the most effective ways of increasing children’s physical activity, she argued, and these also brought other associated benefits including social development, creativity, problem solving and well-being. However, she noted that obstacles existed to extending play in local communities, including traffic dangers, a lack of parental time, fear of litigation, poor quality play spaces, and a lack of tolerance for children’s noise. Ms Butler praised initiatives such as the Street Play Project, but warned that it was currently too expensive to close streets temporarily in London. Changing attitudes and better design of public realm and new housing estates could help.
Heather Ward addresses the audience

Heather Ward addresses the audience

  • Heather Ward explored how road safety was affecting children’s travel. She explained that road accidents were one of the highest causes of childhood injury and death, although the absolute number of casualties had fallen very significantly over the past few decades. Boys were more likely to be victims than girls, and more children were killed as pedestrians than as car occupants. There were also stark differences between socio-economic groups, with children from poorer families having much higher casualty rates than those from the wealthiest families. Calling for more efforts to improve road safety, she observed that children were less likely to judge speed accurately than adults, and lower speed limits should be a priority. More research was also required to understand children’s movements and needs.
  • Simon Craven discussed the problems that children’s travel posed for policy makers and operators. He noted that the challenges presented were high but increased childhood mobility was good for both children and transport providers. He observed that children are an under-researched and under-consulted segment of the travelling public, and this hampered policy development. Attention to these issues was particularly important now, at a time when attitudes and behaviours were changing fast as a result of the mobile internet revolution. With car ownership less attractive for young people than at any time since the 1950s, the market was increasingly turning to providing travel as a service rather than as a material good. Looking ahead, he suggested that operators would need to focus more on the experiences and emotional side of travel for young people, and policy makers would need to define more clearly the public good that arises from transport. The social leveling that arises from using public transport, and the role of travel in supporting wider educational and health objectives, would become increasingly important, and more attention should be paid to children when forming policy.
Simon Craven discusses children and transport

Simon Craven discusses children and transport

Key themes raised in the discussion:

  • Better research is required into children’s travel behaviour and needs. Several delegates pointed out that research into children’s travel was inadequate and more should be done to understand trends, attitudes and needs. It was noted that Transport Focus was looking at how to address this issue, and it was suggested that travel surveys should be extended to provide more information. In particular, delegates noted that children at different ages had very different needs and should not be considered as a single category. Some observed that the nature of play changes when children reach adolescence and they seek greater independence.
  • Fears over children’s safety while travelling need to be addressed. Attendees noted that the safety and security of young people affected their willingness to travel. Some called for more conductors on buses in order to handle gangs of youths, although others warned that this would place public transport staff in danger. Other guests pointed to the scandal of grooming children for sexual abuse by taxi drivers in places such as Rotherham, and called for tighter regulation to protect children when using public transport. The question of a minimum age for child travel was raised; although there was no legal minimum age some companies had restrictions because of the added burden of safeguarding younger children. Some delegates observed that traffic calming was still widely needed to improve safety in residential streets.
Delegates engage in a lively discussion

Delegates engage in a lively discussion

  • The cost and range of travel fares for children is an issue of concern. Senior figures expressed concern that the cost of travel for children on public transport was too high, and this was deterring use by children from poorer backgrounds. There were also complaints about the wide variation in child fare policies on public transport, and fears that these were confusing for parents and children. However, others noted that a national standard fares policy would undermine adaptation to local needs and competition. Some argued that concessionary fares for pensioners should be scaled back, and the savings used to reduce fares for children’s travel.
  • Transport policy can help to encourage active travel. A number of guests called for better policy making to encourage more active travel by children. It was also noted that travel helped children to learn skills and have fun. Schemes such as Bikeability and the School Transport Plans could help encourage more active travel at a local level, while there were some calls to make it easier to change the use of streets at different times. Delegates suggested that lessons could be learned from successful policies in places such as Italy, Scandinavia, and Rotterdam. Some called for enhanced design of residential developments and transport networks, such as cycle ways, so that these were more attuned to children’s travel needs.
  • We need to be aware of contradictory wants in terms of children’s travel. A note of caution was sounded about the irreconcilable nature of various demands, and the tough choices that this created for policy makers. National fare structures, for instance, contradicted calls for greater local autonomy in policy; calls for cheaper fares were in tension with requests for more conductors and guards on public transport, while the closing of streets had to be balanced against calls for greater mobility. It was recognised, however, that transport could serve a wider range of policy objectives around improving children’s health and well-being.