Today, just half of UK primary school children walk to school, down from 70% in the 1970s. Including secondary school students, most pupils now travel to school by car. They account for one in four of all cars on the roads during the morning rush hour.

What can be done to reverse this trend – to reduce congestion and carbon emissions and to improve the health of children, parents, and teachers? In Oldham, Greater Manchester, Arup worked with the local council, schools, parents, and children to find out. The aim was to create a strategy that would make active travel to school easier, safer, and more enjoyable. To achieve this, we drew on our experience of active travel projects around the world. Our Staterra urban modelling toolkit enabled us to analyse a large area quickly and prioritise the actions that will make the biggest difference.

The project will support the Oldham Transport Strategy, backing Oldham Council’s plans to enable growth, reduce carbon emissions, and improve air quality, health outcomes and quality of life for everyone in the borough.

Improving health outcomes for everyone

Across Oldham, childhood and adult obesity are above the English national average. There are high rates of depression. And air pollution is above World Health Organisation guidelines. Factoring in the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions, Oldham Council is keen to improve all these outcomes by supporting active travel to school, and for other local journeys.

In 2023, the council asked our team to audit active travel provision at Oldham’s schools. Its challenge to us: find ways to help children, families and staff to walk, wheel or cycle to school.

We developed a framework that categorises 99 primary, secondary and specialist schools in Oldham into urban, suburban and village schools. Each has different characteristics. For example, urban schools typically lie in densely populated, mixed-use areas, whereas rural village schools are often in sparsely populated areas and close to higher speed roads. We then overlaid information on the school catchments and surrounding land uses – because these factors affect how families travel, traffic levels, and the number of large vehicles such as lorries on the roads around the school.

Combining Staterra and our expertise to analyse routes rapidly

Using the typologies, we employed Staterra (previously called uMove), our in-house walking and cycling analysis tool, to assess existing active travel routes surrounding the schools. Incorporating data on where pupils at each school are likely to live, we developed isochrones for each school – a travel map showing journey times. We also generated a baseline accessibility score for each school quantifying how easy it is to walk, wheel or cycle there.

With decades of experience advising cities and local authorities on mobility, our experts swiftly identified what information they needed to gather and where challenges might arise. In collaboration with Oldham Council, we selected six focus schools for detailed investigation, across different wards, sizes, and types of school.

Gathering input from pupils, school staff and local residents

Bringing in different voices is key to building local support, making more democratic decisions and ensuring community needs are met. Throughout the project, we asked pupils, staff and residents to tell us how they currently travel, comment on existing active travel provision and highlight any barriers or concerns. One key finding from the survey was that the Covid-19 pandemic has changed travel patterns. With many people switching to hybrid and homeworking there are fewer commuters, meaning that the school run is now the most fixed and consistent journey type. This makes it even more of a priority for decarbonisation.

At four schools, we held in-depth workshops with staff and pupils. This revealed most pupils enjoy active travel to school – they value the opportunity to spend time with friends – but often did not feel safe doing so. High vehicle speeds and lack of crossings were the most common concern. 

Clear, visual recommendations

Following the workshops, we compiled a toolkit of recommendations to create safe, accessible, and pleasant environments for active journeys to school. These are displayed on a geospatial dashboard, making it straightforward to see how recommendations interact with other council functions like planning and health. Interventions fall into three broad categories: safety, accessible and inclusive design, and amenity. Each intervention is prioritised differently according to the school typology.

Recommendations to make journeys safer include improvements to crossings and junctions; creating more 20mph zones around schools; School Streets; and education programmes like Bikeability. To make active travel more accessible, there are options to open disused school entrances, review parking policies, and improve level access. Under amenity, measures include green infrastructure and pocket parks.

A scalable approach

The typologies and framework we created ensure the findings can be applied to schools across Oldham, and beyond. It is scalable and, using Staterra, could be applied to other neighbourhoods or cities.

Across Oldham, the local authority is developing proposals to take the recommendations forward so that families who want to walk, wheel or cycle can do so safely and enjoy their journey to school.