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Transport to school

Transport to school

Whether they’re used to walking to a village school, joining the traffic in the back of your car, or crossing a city in a public bus, your children might find that their commute to their new international school is rather different to what they’ve experienced at home.


Although they’re unlikely to have one of the more hair-raising journeys to school experienced by some children around the world, both you and your children might be required to dig deep when it comes to new arrangements for getting to school. We spoke to parents with children at school in Copenhagen, Tokyo and Mumbai to find out more about their daily commutes, and found that ‘going native’ and doing what the locals do is usually the most practical, and safe, option.


Early independence

Tokyo is the world’s largest city, with a population of 37.8 million residents, but it’s also one of the safest cities in the world. Japan is a country which takes its collective responsibility to its young people seriously, and recently closed one remote train station only after its sole user for three years, a teenager called Kana, completed her secondary school education in March this year.

The Tokyo subway.

The Tokyo subway.

In Tokyo, local children as young as six or seven use the city’s trains and subways on their own and in small groups for getting to school. This is despite the fact that the main Shinjuku station in the city is used by some 3.7 million people every day, making it the world’s busiest transport hub. The Japanese ethic of taking shared responsibility for public spaces is what makes the city so safe and allows children to feel they can call on any adult for help if they need it.

In all Japanese cities, people are accustomed to walking everywhere, and public transportation trumps car culture; in Tokyo, half of all trips are made on rail or bus, and a quarter on foot. One expat blogger whose children walk to school describes how “all the kids in our town meet in the road and walk to school together…as young as seven. The older people in the neighbourhood volunteer to make sure the kids safely cross the roads. As parents we make sure our kids always greet the older residents politely; no mumbling or looking down. If they don’t, it’s considered very rude! Parents also take turns watching the kids walk to school to make sure they do the greetings and stay safe.”


The Cycling City

In Copenhagen, children experience similar levels of independence, with a lot of expat children getting about on their bicycles like the native population. Denmark has a huge network of bicycle routes, which extend for over 12,000km, making cycling an easy and safe way to get around. The cyclists of Copenhagen travel a total of 1,240,000km each day and 45% of everyone who studies or works in the city cycles to their place of education or work. Most importantly, this small city has 454km of cycle lanes, meaning drivers and pedestrians alike are aware of bikes, making it incredibly safe.

"...children who walk or cycle to school concentrate better..."

Londoner Sophie Latham moved to Copenhagen a year ago with her two young children who now cycle to school every day. “Learning to ride a bike is an important part of growing up in Denmark. Almost as important as learning to walk! Every morning my children join their friends on the cycle path near where we live and they are able to make their way safely to school while I cycle in the opposite direction to work. Admittedly they’re not going far, and it’s a residential area, but as they get older I can see how using their bikes will give them independence without compromising on safety,” says Sophie. “The problem will come when we return to London, a city which is much less cycle-friendly. They won’t have the same kind of freedom there.”

According to the results of a Danish study, Sophie is giving her children a great gift: the ability to concentrate better. The survey looked at nearly 20,000 Danish children between the ages of 5 and 19. It found that those who cycled or walked to school, rather than travelling by car or public transportation, performed measurably better on tasks demanding concentration, such as solving puzzles, and that the effects lasted for up to four hours after they got to school.

Walking to school in Copenhagen. Photograph: Melanie Hayne

Walking to school in Copenhagen. Photograph: Melanie Hayne

Taking on the traffic

There are some cities, however, where cycling just isn’t a safe option. Mumbai, with its legendary traffic congestion, can take a while to become accustomed to, and while using public transport is an adventure, it can become a struggle on a day-to-day basis. Fortunately, many expats find that hiring a driver is an affordable option.

Sarah Spencer, whose three boys attended the Ecole Mondiale in the city explains: “The school run was a very big part of our lives in Mumbai simply because of the volume of traffic. I was the absolute exception to the rule in that I would turn up to the school to collect my own children. It was much more common for children to be taken and collected by their drivers and housemaids. In fact, when we first arrived it took me a while to work out who all the people picking up the children were.

“We did used to send the children with our driver sometimes to save ourselves the time but not every day because the boys were quite little and it made me slightly anxious. Tofi, our driver, was fantastic and the children loved him. I trusted him implicitly so occasionally, when it was necessary, I felt I could send him with the children.”

Mumbai traffic. Photograph: Agência Brasil/Wikimedia

Mumbai traffic. Photograph: Agência Brasil/Wikimedia

No matter how your children are getting to school, wherever you are in the world, safety will naturally be your number-one priority. Your school will advise you on how other parents deal with the school run, and many schools provide their own bus services. In countries where local safety standards may not be as rigorous as you’re accustomed to, most schools will ensure the buses they provide are regularly inspected, have seat belts and are attended by competent staff with mobile phones to supervise students during travel times. Otherwise, if you’re open minded about adopting the local approach to getting to school, whatever that may be, then the daily commute could become one of the many ways your children get to know their new home and how its culture works.

Case study

Melanie Hayne’s son Noah, aged six, goes to the European School in Copenhagen, Denmark. 

How does your son get to school?

Currently we live on the opposite side of the city to the school so we use two buses and one train to get to school. It takes about 45 minutes. The catchment area for the school is the whole city so many of my son's classmates have similarly long journeys. We are planning to move closer and I will cycle him using our cargo bike.

Does he do this journey in the company of other kids from the school or with you?

As my son is still pretty young, most of his school year come in with parents or older siblings, but this changes as they get older. It is not uncommon for children from the age of eight or nine to travel alone to school, either by bike or public transport. Mobile phones are essential for kids to stay in touch with parents, but the city is a safe place and there is a mentality of looking out for people so it's not considered a dangerous thing to do.

Is his journey typical for Danish school kids?

It's not typical – most Danish children will go to their local school and either walk or bike to school, often alone or with friends, from a fairly young age. The distance for us plus my English background means I'm less comfortable with him going alone so young. School transport reflects that of the wider community in Copenhagen, where public transport and cycling are the common ways to get around. 

Do the Danes give more independence to their children than the British in terms of transport and getting about? 

There's definitely a lot more independence from an age much younger than their counterparts in the UK. It starts early as babies are often left to sleep outside alone whilst their parents are in coffee shops or indoors. There's a great emphasis on independence but also a sense of trust that people are good and children are safe. For example, schools are very open and many don't have boundary walls or fences around the playgrounds.

Top photograph: International School of Hamburg

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