Publication - Research publication

Tackling the school run: research study

Published: 18 Jan 2017
Children and Families Directorate
Part of:
Children and families, Education, Research

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

80 page PDF

2.1 MB

80 page PDF

2.1 MB

Tackling the school run: research study
Chapter 3 - Factors Influencing School Travel Choices

80 page PDF

2.1 MB

Chapter 3 - Factors Influencing School Travel Choices


This chapter provides an overview of factors influencing school travel choices. The Tackling the School Run Literature Review Technical Note published alongside this report contains further details.

School Catchment

The 2011 Scottish Census reported that 88% of children aged between 4 and 11 years travelled less than 5km to school, including 72% who travelled less than 2km. This indicates that active modes are an option for the majority of school pupils in Scotland. A total of 430,000 people of all ages travelled under 2km to their place of study, with 73% walking, 1% cycling, 6% travelling by bus and 17% as a passenger in a car or van. Of the 428,000 people who travelled 2km or more to their place of study, 31% did so as a car driver or passenger, 43% travelled by bus and 7% by train.

School planning policy, however, and in particular a movement towards combined/campus style schools to address budget constraints and achieve economies of scale can have a direct bearing on school travel and mode choice. This is directly attributable to school catchment distances increasing as schools increase in size and serve a wider geography.

Transport and Travel in Scotland 2015 reported on the reasons for school travel choices in Scotland which are summarised in Table 3.1. Key points include:

  • Of the pupils who usually walk to school, 90% do so because the school is nearby, while 41% who travel by car do so because it is the most convenient mode. 40% who use a school bus and 40% who use a service bus do so for the same reason - 'most convenient';
  • The second most popular reason for those who travel by car identified that it served to offer the 'safest method' (20%), while for school bus the second most popular reason stated was also attributed to it being the 'safest method ' and for service bus the second most common reason related to it being 'too far to walk'; and
  • The most popular reason for primary children not using public transport is that they are 'too young to travel on their own' (55%). For secondary aged children the main reasons are that 'it is inconvenient' (27%) and parents 'prefer to use the car' (49%).

Table 3.1: Reasons for Transport Choice to Children's Full-time Education Establishment, 2004-2015 (Scottish Government, 2016)

Reason Walking Car or Van School Bus Service Bus
Close/Nearby/Not far away 90% 7% 5% 11%
Most convenient 8% 41% 40% 40%
Travel with friends 4% 1% 6% 4%
Safest method 1% 20% 22% 2%
Quickest method 4% 14% 10% 7%
Only method available 2% 11% 18% 23%
Too far to walk 0% 16% 21% 24%
No public transport 0 % 3% 4% 2%
Public transport unsuitable ( e.g. too infrequent) 0% 2% 2% 0%
Good exercise/fresh air 5% 0% 0% 0%
No car/Transport 0% 0% 0% 3%
Cheapest method 0% 1% 1% 1%
It is free 0% 0% 14% 0%
On way to work 0% 9% 0% 0%
Too young to travel any other way 0% 7% 2% 1%
Relative meets child 0% 1% 0% 0%
Other reason(s) 0% 5% 1% 2%
Sample size (=100%) 930 470 290 100

School Transport

School catchment and distance travelled is influenced by home to school transport policy. School Transport Guidance Circular 7/2003 sets out the requirements for the provision of school transport in Scotland and pupils living over a maximum walking distance threshold are entitled to free or supported travel from their local education authority. Education authorities in Scotland are required to provide home to school transport arrangements that they consider necessary for:

  • Children aged less than 8 years' old who live more than two miles from their designated school; and
  • Children aged 8 and over who live more than three miles from their designated school.

The application of the criteria is not uniform across Scotland, but based on a combination of age and distance. Variants include:

  • Using the primary/secondary school distinction to determine eligibility instead of the eight years' age threshold;
  • Lower thresholds of a maximum walking distance of one mile for primary school pupils, and two miles for secondary school pupils; and
  • Lower thresholds of a maximum walking distance of one mile for those aged 8 and under, and two miles for those aged 8 and over.

Dedicated free transport and subsidy of scheduled bus/taxi fares account for the majority of provision, with the percentage mix dependent on the density and coverage of scheduled public transport services. Local authorities are expected to keep under review their criteria on provision by taking into consideration other factors, such as road traffic volumes, the availability of crossings, sufficient pavement and footpaths, subways, built-up and wooded areas, adequate street lighting and also a degree of flexibility where appropriate.

Built Environment

Effective masterplanning and local planning is integral to facilitating the accessibility of neighbourhoods and therefore the journey to school being made by more active and sustainable modes. This was highlighted in discussions at the Smarter Choices Smarter Places ( SCSP) Learning Event held in 2016 and attended by local authorities, delivery partners and other stakeholders involved in the delivery of SCSP funded initiatives to promote active and sustainable travel. Information prepared by Living Streets in 2016 notes that the Building Better Schools Strategy advocates a need to "focus attention on all aspects of sustainability and environmental efficiency...options for sustainable travel' and 'improve the way we think about a school's fit with its surroundings and relationship to the community."

As well as considering the site location, the importance of site design and layout of the school for access by arrival on foot, bike and public transport is also pertinent and for early consideration to be taken as part of the development planning process. School planning policy and in particular a movement towards combined/campus style schools to address budget constraints and achieve economies of scale can have a direct bearing on school travel and mode choice. This is directly attributable to school catchment distances increasing as schools increase in size and serve a wider geography.

The development mangement process, in terms of the consideration given to the impact of developments on the transport network in a school context is also of importance. This is particularly relevant in terms of how routes to school are taken into account when new residential developments are being considered and also the impact of other developments which are expected to have a significant impact on the transport network within a school catchment area or equally also provide opportunities to enhance active travel routes.

Pupil Attitudes

Research into perceived and actual barriers and benefits of active travel to school has identified a range of personal, social and environmental factors as influencing travel choices. These include:

  • Social interaction is viewed as a major benefit of active travel for pupils, particularly for those pupils transitioning from primary school to secondary school, when forming new friendships was a priority;
  • Pupils have also identified the importance of health benefits gained from active travel to school;
  • Parental influences and support/culture of the school have been highlighted as important factors in school transport choice;
  • Safety concerns are a barrier to active travel, with local geography a potential factor; and
  • Whole-school approaches and curriculum activities are also felt to provide a framework within which to help overcome barriers to active and sustainable travel.

Parental Influences

Parental influence is a key consideration to mode choices for the school journey and is shaped by different factors including:

  • Parental perceptions, particularly in relation to safety, time and distance as well as wider lifestyle characteristics and commitments can have a direct influence on how children travel to and from school;
  • Time and convenience resulting from the balance between employment commitments/working patterns and caring responsibilities of parents;
  • Availability of wrap around Breakfast and After School Clubs and flexibility which is potentially encouraging more pupils to travel sustainably in the morning but less so in the afternoon with parents opting to collect their children to ensure they do not arrive home first should they be delayed for any reason; and
  • Societal norms in terms of gender related attitudes towards domestic and caring responsibilities, and in particular the cultural expectations of women's role in society. Research has noted that the cultural expectation of juggling the school run, the commute, the food shopping which makes the car an attractive and importantly a convenient option leading to high levels of driving amongst middle-aged women.

Household Car Ownership

Household car availability is also a potential influencing factor. Table 3.2 shows travel to school by number of cars in a household. This illustrates higher levels of walking in non-car owning households, although walking still accounts for the greatest mode share even in households which do have a car. School bus travel is highest in car owning households, suggesting the influence of location in terms of distance travelled to school being potentially further in higher car owning households.

Table 3.2: Travel to School by No. Cars/Household (Scottish Government, 2016)

No. Cars/Household Walking Car or Van Bicycle School Bus Service Bus Rail Other
None 65.4% 1.7% 1.7% 13.2% 12.7% 0.6% 4.7%
One 50.8% 24.6% 1.3% 14.1% 5.6% 1.2% 2.4%
Two+ 41.2% 35.3% 1% 17.1% 3.3% 1.2% 1%


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 within the school grounds and the surrounding environs.

Wider aspects in terms of linkages between school travel, the environment and health are more widely recognised. The intricate linkage between factors that affect the school run are however more far reaching. Busy lifestyles and demands on time can influence travel behaviour, as can flexible working practices, school wrap around breakfast provision 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.

Furthermore, planning in terms of not just school location but also the design of the school site has been identified as an important factor at the design stage when decisions can be influenced. This would help to support design for access by walking, cycling and public transport and provide a platform from the outset to encourage sustainable travel choices.


Email: Veronica Smith