Has Covid-19 changed the school run?

Schools in England are returning this week, much to the relief of many parents, myself included.

With pre-pandemic research from Transport for London showing that a quarter of the cars on London's roads each morning are doing the school run, I wanted to find out whether Covid-19 has changed parents' travel behaviour and perhaps enabled a greener school run.

Our research

To test out my theory, we invited parents from across the UK to take part in a survey about how Covid-19 had impacted their school run.

We recruited almost 100 participants, with over half living in London and the South-East. The majority of those who took part had children between the ages of 4 and 11.

Our survey looked at how children are travelling to school, whether they had changed their mode of transport as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and if so, how and why.

What we found

Encouragingly, 60% of our survey respondents were walking to school for at least part of their journey. Just over one-fifth cycled, while 10% scooted for at least part of the way. However, the car is still very popular, with over 40% of participants using a car for at least some of their journey to school.

Our survey showed that the majority of respondents (80%) hadn't changed the way they travel to school since the start of the pandemic. Of the participants who hadn't changed the way they travelled, more than 60% walk for at least part of their journey, and just over one-fifth cycled or scooted for at least part of their journey. Almost 40% used the car for some or all of their journey.

Interestingly, of those participants who had changed the way they travel to school, over half were now walking for at least part of their journey, and over one-third cycling. Alarmingly, some respondents had shifted to using the car, with over half of those who had changed their travel behaviour, using the car for at least some of their journey.

How and why has travel changed?

When respondents were asked how and why they had changed their mode of transport, around one third said they were now walking more, with some saying working from home has made it easier for them to walk to school, or at least reduce their car usage.

One respondent commented: "Absurdly, I had to drive to school at the end of our road to ensure I got a train that would get me into work on time. Working from home now means we can walk."

Another mentioned they had reduced their car usage as they now had more time, especially in the evenings.

In addition to walking, Covid-19 has encouraged more people to cycle, with some respondents saying they are now cycling more.

Comments such as "I got confident cycling during lockdown" and "I'd never cycled before Covid" were among their responses.

Our findings also showed that some of those who had changed their travel behaviour were now favouring their cars to get their children to school, as they felt safer. Reasons given included concerns over hygiene on public transport and worries about buses being too busy.

What does this mean for the future of the school run?

While our survey showed that only a minority of respondents had changed the way they travel to school, it's worrying to see some people switching to using their cars.

As the car is still a key mode of transport in the school run, we need to do more to persuade people away from their cars, and make it a priority to make cars greener.

On a more positive note, our survey shows that where people are given the flexibility, time and appropriate infrastructure to ensure their children can travel to school in the most environmentally friendly way possible, they will. This should be encouraged to continue beyond our recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Policymakers should continue to provide adults and children with the knowledge and infrastructure to facilitate a green school run. Together with more flexible working options, we can definitely make it easier for children to get to school through active travel, and where that isn't possible, through greener transport modes.

Jo Field is Founder & Managing Director, JFG Communications