Tackling the school run: research study

A research study to provide the latest evidence on school transport choices.

Executive Summary


SYSTRA Ltd, in partnership with Wellside Research and Sustrans, were commissioned by the Scottish Government "to provide the latest evidence on school transport choices and which approaches have been effective in influencing these, in order to inform the development of workable and deliverable policies that minimise the proportion of journeys to school made by car while increasing the proportion choosing active travel."

The study was overseen by a Project Steering Group with representation from across Scottish Government Directorates, including Learning, Transport Policy (Active & Sustainable Transport) and Energy & Climate Change. The Society of Chief Officers for Transport ( SCOTS), Association of Transport Coordinating Officers ( ATCO) and Association for the Directors of Education Scotland ( ADES) were also represented on the Steering Group.

The study comprised three main phases, as follows:

  • A familiarisation phase consisting of a Literature Review, secondary data analysis, and stakeholder discussions, which informed the case study selection process and helped guide the design of data collection materials;
  • A qualitative fieldwork phase involving a mix of 11 primary and secondary schools and consisting of:
    • Interviews with school staff - Head Teachers, Deputy Head Teachers or other members of the school staff;
    • Pupil mini-focus groups with P6, S1 and S3 pupils who currently travel to school by sustainable modes or have the option to do so;
    • Pupil led interviews with their parents at home; and
    • Local authority and other stakeholder discussions.
  • Analysis and reporting of the data to produce recommendations that can inform the development of an integrated package of policies on tackling the school run.


School Travel Trends

The Sustrans' Hands Up Scotland Survey ( HUSS) is an annual survey undertaken in the second week of September each year. Established in 2008, HUSS is the largest national dataset recording how pupils travel to school across Scotland. The most recent HUSS data for 2015 reported that over 2,060 schools took part in the survey across all 32 local authorities in Scotland. Out of this total, 2,045 were state schools (80.3% of all registered state schools in Scotland), with responses received from 474,200 state school pupils in Scotland (69.7% of all state school pupils enrolled in Scotland).

In summary, 49.7% of pupils surveyed in 2015 said that they normally travel to school in an active way (walking, cycling, using a scooter or skateboard):

  • Walking was the most frequent mode of travel with 43.3% of pupils stating that they normally walk to school; and
  • 3.5% of pupils said they normally travel to school by bicycle and 2.9% stated that they normally use a scooter or skateboard to travel to school.

A further 7.8% of pupils said that they normally park and stride to school.

42% of pupils surveyed in 2015 said that they normally travel to school using only a motorised mode of transport. The majority, were either driven to school (22.4%) or took the bus to school (17.9%). A further 1.7% travelled by taxi.

In summary, school travel trends indicate that active travel accounts for the largest proportion of the school journey in Scotland, but varies between primary and secondary years as well as state and independent schools. This is reflective, in part, of the school catchment area alongside wider factors which are further explored through the literature review and fieldwork.


The National Transport Strategy ( NTS) sets the long-term vision for transport policy in Scotland. It was first published in 2006 and more recently refreshed in 2015 followed by an announcement in August 2016 that a full review will be undertaken.

In terms of school travel, the NTS notes that:

"We need to tackle the congestion problems in many of our cities and towns, including those caused by the School Run which also lead to inactive lifestyles for our children and road accidents which cause deaths and injuries and contribute to problems of congestion and unreliable journey times." National Transport Strategy (Transport Scotland, 2016)

The NTS is complemented by mode specific policies, including A Long Term Vision for Active Travel in Scotland 2030 (Transport Scotland, 2014), Cycling Action Plan for Scotland 2013 (Transport Scotland, 2013) and Let's Get Scotland Walking: The National Walking Strategy (Scottish Government, 2014).

From a policy perspective, the impact of the school run is cross-cutting. It has a direct impact in terms of transport and associated congestion and national targets to increase travel by more sustainable and active modes. The journey to school is also influenced by wider policy, particularly in terms of planning and also impacts on other policy areas including health and the environment.

Factors Influencing School Travel

The literature review and fieldwork identified that there are many and wide ranging factors which influence travel choices for the journey to school. These range from the individual level in terms of pupil and parent perceptions and travel distances through to the school in terms of how active travel is viewed and promoted. Wider local and national policy is also key in terms of home to school transport provision as well as considerations pertaining to planning concerning the location of schools and provision for active travel in both the surrounding environs along with the school grounds.

Wider aspects in terms of linkages between school travel and benefits of active travel in relation to, for example, health and well-being are more widely recognised. The intricate linkage between the school run is, however, more far reaching. Busy lifestyles and demands on time can influence travel behaviour as can flexible working practices and school wrap around breakfast and after school clubs. This can have an influence on travel choices through, for example, the trip chaining of the journey to school with another purpose such as a work or shopping trip and resultant impact of convenience in particular on travel choices.

The influence of these different factors were also highlighted in the fieldwork.

School Travel Initiatives in Scotland

The research illustrated the wide array of travel and behaviour change initiatives that have been implemented in different school settings across Scotland as well as training and infrastructure based measures. The literature review also identified measures implemented across the wider UK and internationally with the aim to increase travel to school by more sustainable modes of transport.

In summary, there is an existing range of well-developed and well known national scale projects in Scotland that local authorities and schools can access, and most case study schools had also developed a range of local initiatives, which varied in nature, scope and size. Some schools had implemented both behavioural change initiatives and infrastructural measures/changes at the school gate and across their community to encourage and facilitate more active and sustainable transport.

Changes in other dimensions, in particular the Curriculum for Excellence and increased flexibility were also noted to have introduced the opportunity to integrate transport into classroom learning and complement the aim to increase active travel. Examples include the Eco-Schools programme, supported by the development of lesson plans as part of resource packs for specific initiatives such as Walk Once a Week and Bikeability. Some initiatives, such as School Camps organised by Cycling Scotland, also highlighted the wider personal development and learning opportunities associated with active travel related initiatives, such as training accreditations.

Where the impact of initiatives had been considered, there was generally a positive impact reported in terms of encouraging active travel but with the scope for further work in this area to identify impacts more at the school and wider national and regional level. Preliminary analysis undertaken as part of the study and findings reported in wider literature suggests a co-intervention approach with different initiatives working in combination is most effective, although more detailed analysis would be required to identify the significance and potential for differing levels of impact taken account of wider factors, such as the characteristics of the school setting.

Key Findings

In summary, the research has identified there is no single answer to achieving high levels of sustainable transport in schools, but rather, a combination of key elements appears to be important. These can be summarised as follows:

  • Provision of infrastructure to facilitate sustainable and active travel choices;
  • Strong and solid delivery of training to allow safe use of the infrastructure;
  • Regular and ongoing reinforcement of initiatives to encourage behaviour change and increase the number of school journeys being made by active and sustainable modes, complemented by periodic events and/or competitions to maintain interest along with incentivisation/reward; and
  • Achieving buy-in from the whole school community (including staff, pupils and parents) as well as external parties (including local authorities and delivery partners) and integrating active and sustainable travel fully into the school ethos and culture.

Key challenges were, however, also identified in promoting active travel and particularly in relation to:

  • Addressing real and perceived safety concerns through the provision of infrastructure linking with the school gate. This was often found to be compounded by parking pressures and associated congestion at the school gate during drop-off/pick-up times;
  • Resource constraints, both at the school level and in terms of dedicated personnel at local authorities, to lead, repeat and enforce the school run message at the local level;
  • Sustaining active travel into secondary years due to a variety of reasons ranging from school catchments increasing in size, to school workloads/kit requirements and wider choices/increasing independence;
  • Budgetary pressure and competing priorities at central and local Government, as well as within the financial year, school year and funding programme years which vary and can create challenges in terms of maximising the use and benefit drawn from available resources within a particular time period; and
  • Tackling wider societal norms around car use, walking and cycling in particular.

Whilst this research arose as part of a package of measures to address climate change, the scope for the work did not require the identification or measurement of reduction in car use/distance driven, or air quality levels around case study schools. As such, the extent to which the efforts made by schools to tackle the school run are impacting on climate change/pollution levels cannot be established from this research. Further, the climate change agenda was not credited in the research as driving schools' delivery of behaviour and infrastructure change programmes. However, the research does suggest that schools' efforts to tackle the school run should indeed be contributing to the Government's commitment to address climate change, as well as wider health and well-being agendas, and transport objectives.


The research has highlighted there is a role for different departments at the national and local levels, to continue and have greater involvement in tackling the school run and promoting active travel/travel behaviour changes.


On the whole, there appears to be scope for greater joint working and cross-departmental funding of initiatives and infrastructure developments across the various local and national Government departments. However, within this it will be important that the core messages and aims of initiatives are not diluted or confused, so that schools can set clear priorities and be suitably supported to achieve these.

Specific cross-departmental considerations include:

  • Cross-agency working to support the delivery of local initiatives against a backdrop of resource constraints. This may be through, for example, cross-departmental Government funding to provide mentoring and administrative support via national delivery partners; and
  • Enhanced cross-working between Government departments and agencies to ensure initiatives are inter-linked where appropriate, consistent delivery and the opportunities presented by active travel are fully embraced. For example, strengthening of relations between Scottish Government/Transport Scotland, sportscotland (Active Schools) and Education Scotland (Daily Mile). The Daily Mile is an initiative where transport can directly positively contribute through embedding walking and cycling within everyday activity such as the journey to/from school.


The transport sector has to date led on supporting schools and the wider community to develop sustainable travel habits and to change social norms away from car use and towards active modes. While this is and will continue to be key, lessons from the research highlighted the benefits of community buy-in, and there may be scope to increase the role of the school community in the design of new infrastructure using some of the examples highlighted in this report. Further and wider engagement between transport and other policy areas is also a key dimension.

Specific roles for the transport sector include:

  • Leading on further development of cross-departmental, consistent and long-term programme of initiatives supported by appropriate funding;
  • Strengthening the role of the School Travel Plan and guidance from national and local Government in order to bring consistency to the process and facilitate the travel planning process as intended i.e. to instil sustainable and active travel behaviour and monitor change over time;
  • Review of the requirement for match funding applications in all circumstances, with consideration of alternatives such as contributory funding and 'value in kind' to facilitate wider roll out of programmes to other areas and schools and with a longer term commitment. The short-term nature of funding programmes was identified as a factor by some stakeholders and also raised at the SCSP Learning Event attended by the research team;
  • Consideration of the development of an Annual School Active Travel Summit for Government, local authorities, delivery partners and schools to come together to share experiences and learning with representation from across different sectors with an interest and direct role to play in addressing the school run challenge;
  • Engagement at the national level with authorities currently piloting the School Streets initiative to understand impacts and the potential for wider roll out across other authorities in Scotland, facilitated in the first instance by a Government led working group; and
  • Further developing monitoring/measurement of initiatives progress and impact. Most schools noted that they take part in the national Hands Up Scotland Survey ( HUSS) annually and many also utilised the Travel Tracker, but there appeared to be opportunity for greater use to be made of these data sources to monitor initiatives or to identify changes in travel patterns at the school level. There is scope to further use these data sources to not only understand trends at the school level, but to help schools and local authorities to plan and develop local policy and help with the targeting of initiatives.


Education is considered to have a greater role to play to drive forward messages to schools about the school journey, and to set priorities for schools. Stakeholders indicated that where behaviour change initiatives can be communicated to schools via the local Education Departments, the relationship with, and buy-in from the school was often better than those authority areas where other departments facilitated this. It was also shown throughout this study that the role of the 'travel champion', and the motivation and enthusiasm of that individual, is vital in the success of initiatives and instilling motivation and behaviour change in the pupils. As such, the importance of this role, and the benefits that the 'right person' can bring should be promoted to schools.

Recommendations for consideration include:

  • Strengthening of the role of Education Departments in national and local Government in relation to the development and delivery of school travel based initiatives and measures. This would bring forward more Education to Education dialogue and assist in embedding sustainable transport into school culture and learning at the school level;
  • Further profile raising of transport within the Education sector and at higher levels through a variety of methods, for example utilising the Association of Directors of Education, an Annual Learning Event, Head Teacher/Staff forums, and potentially through the school inspector process. This would assist in raising the profile of transport in the school environment from an operational perspective in terms of access, as well as learning opportunities, and supported by examples of best practice. The Government would have a key role to play in facilitating this process; and
  • Reinforcing the opportunities afforded by transport and related initiatives in terms of Curriculum links, including learning related to STEM subjects as well as the development of wider life-skills for young people in Scotland.


Similarly, a stronger and more pro-active role is suggested for Planning to provide a consistent structure and framework for new developments, particularly residential as well as school led developments, which considers access to and within the school gate from the outset. This includes, any new development that occurs on a popular route to a school which should also have consideration of the promotion/facilitation of active travel/safe routes incorporated at the planning stages. A number of case study schools had benefited from infrastructure changes at the school gate and within the wider community, whilst others continued to suffer the negative effects related to parent's perceptions of safety regarding their route to school. Safer routes to schools are as equally vital in changing pupils travel choices as the provision of initiatives.

Focus for future policy should concentrate on:

  • Strengthening of Scottish Government planning guidance to local authorities to ensure planning authorities and infrastructure developers take account of school travel, and in particular the provision for access by active and public transport when planning new educational or residential developments. Such consideration is equally important where the provision of new facilities is by Public Private Partnerships; and
  • The impact on (as well as the provision of) safer active routes to school should be addressed where developments are considered to have a significant impact on the transport network within a school catchment area or equally also provide opportunities to enhance active routes within a school catchment area. Further, consultation with schools and funding is also vital to identify and tackle problem areas.

Health and Well-Being

The links between health and well-being and active travel were well known among respondents in this study with active travel promoted in schools during Health Weeks. However, it will be important that the health benefits of active modes continue to be communicated to/through schools, and therefore vital that a consistent message is maintained. There is the potential for health and well-being departments to become more actively involved in terms of their role in tackling the school run and there is scope for greater cross-departmental co-ordination and funding of initiatives. Health Departments can also assist in the reduction of car use more generally by communicating health benefits of active travel and contributing to working towards normalising walking and cycling.


Environment and Climate Change Departments also have a role to play and there is learning to be drawn in terms of looking at how health has become particularly embedded and associated with active travel choices at the school level. While there was an awareness of environmental aspects associated with sustainable travel, there is considered to be the opportunity to utilise curricular links to further strengthen the linkage and connection of this in terms of transport and travel choices at the school, family and individual level, as well as at the wider community level.


Email: Veronica Smith

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