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Parents walking children to school

the School Run
CONGESTION, London air pollution & family stress

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 From London air pollution, to safely crossing the road, today’s school run presents many challenges for families.


Here we take a look at the problems created by the school run, from congestion to family stress, and  why so many families are driving these journeys. 

What problems are caused by the UK school run?

Congestion - A problem for air quality

Graph showing trips by journey purpose by hour of departure

The UK school run happens within very condensed periods of time. This creates a huge surge in trips of all types, illustrated by the red area in the Transport for London chart below. Almost 50% of all trips in London, that happen between 8-9am - regardless of their mode of transport - are for education.  

A number of those school run journeys are driven, which totals around 27% of all car journeys at that time. This surge in school run car travel, adds to existing rush hour traffic, pushing roads past their capacity and creating congestion hotspots all over London.


And across London this surge in car trips and congested roads happens at a time when the highest number of children and young people are actively travelling to school.  So school run traffic itself creates the  damaging dynamic where the highest number of cars are on the road and the highest levels of congestion,  when the highest number of children are exposed.


This congestion creates a myriad of problems, causing cars to drive dangerously to avoid traffic, making roads unpredictable to navigate, especially with young children. A car stationary in traffic creates 29 times more air pollution than a car in free flowing traffic.

Data case study
Click here, for our case study on the link between the school run & traffic congestion, which uses TFL vehicle count & congestion data to show the impact that school run has on roads in Dulwich, South East London. 

London air pollution - Increased exposure

London air pollution, a mix of harmful Nitrogen Dioxide gas, and Fine Particulate Matter, is responsible for 4,000 deaths in London each year. It effects children more than adults as they are closer to the emissions and breathe these particles more deeply and more frequently. Pollution like this can aggravate and directly cause many health issues for more vulnerable children, such as respiratory conditions like asthma.


Cars pollute the air and, particularly in London, air quality is suffering.Children are exposed to five times more air pollution on the school run than at any other time of day.


Schools are at the centre of many car journeys, and the air pollution associated with them collects in school playgrounds and outdoor areas, as well as poorly ventilated classrooms. The University of Surrey recommends that playgrounds next to main roads shouldn't be used in the morning, as they will have a similar amount of air pollution as the road.  In particular, London air pollution and air quality in these areas is on the map in terms of pollution levels, with pollution in London contributing to a less than desirable air quality index (aqi) score and significantly higher than levels recommended by the World Health Organisation.

Despite government initiatives with air quality monitoring and implementing the ultra low emission zone, there is still a long way to go to improve the forecast. London is one of the most polluted places in the UK and reducing school run car trips, a key contributor to peak time congestion, is vital in the move towards clean air.

Road danger - Safely crossing the road

The peak hours for children dying or being seriously injured on the road are between 8-9am, and 3-4pm. The increase in school run traffic leads to an increase in road danger.  Cars may be going slower, due to congestion, but dangerous driving and double parking make crossing roads more dangerous, with reduced visibility. Children between the ages of 11 and 15  - who are more likely to be travelling to secondary school on their own - are the majority of children killed or seriously injured on the road. The school run is not just toxic, it's dangerous.

Carbon emission levels

Last year the Government outlined how all schools need to get to Net Zero by 2030. The school run is a significant contributor to carbon emissions, and according to an earlier government report, pupil and staff travel, and school transport accounted for 16% of the carbon emissions of the schools estate in England (state primary and secondary schools).  We think that by giving parents more choices for the school run, particularly on journeys over a mile for younger children, we will be able to reduce the carbon associated with the school run. 

Family stress

Finding the time to fit the school run in to the day can be a real challenge for parents, particularly since the majority of families now have two working parents.   Research on families who drive the school run showed that 31% of parents found it the most stressful part of their day and 53% of them wished someone else could take on the duty of the school run for them.  In countries like the US there is much more support through the US school bus system for parents, and in countries like Japan and Germany they have developed the culture, community safety & road safety for children to travel to school without their parents from much younger ages. There are very likely also negative economic & productivity implications of so many UK parents having the individual responsibility for their child’s school journey compared to those countries with more collective approaches.

"50% of all trips between
8-9am are for education."

TFL - London Travel Demand Survey
Why do families drive the school run?

Why do families drive the school run?

There are many reasons for driving to school;  moving house, changing jobs or having children at different schools. But there are some factors that have a clear and constant impact. We discuss them and how they interlink, below:

Car ownership

This is an obvious one: car ownership affects school run driving rates  -  if families don’t own a car they are less likely to use one to make school run trips.

  • Car-ownership tends to be highest in Outer London, where 69% of households have access to a car, compared to 42% in Inner London.

  • Car ownership correlates with income; poorer families are least likely to own a car, and the wealthiest households are most likely to. 

This tells us that in Outer London; in areas of high wealth, and in areas with a high number of schools that attract wealthier families, such as independent schools, families may be more likely to drive the school run.


However, owning a car does not automatically mean the school run will be driven. Families that own cars base their decision to drive on other key factors, which we discuss below. 

Age of Pupil - Safely crossing the road

Primary school aged children are much more likely to be driven. Secondary school pupils are more able to travel to school independently, either by walking, cycling or public transport; Safely crossing the road and navigating Londons congested streets. However, primary school pupils are too young to travel on their own and are normally taken to school by their parents. Parents must then complete the return journey home or go onto their place of work, and do this again at the end of the day to collect their child. This results in higher driving rates as parents seek the quickest way to complete these journeys. According to the Department for Transport (DfT) National Travel Survey, London primary school driving rates are higher than for secondary pupils

Length of trip - Distance on the map

Driving rates for the school run increase according to the distance pupils need to travel. This can be seen in the chart below, from the Department of Transport (DfT) also from the National Travel Survey (this chart from 2014, is the clearest illustration of how pupil travel varies by mode over distance, though the latest 2022 data can be found here.)

Bar chart showing how children get to school

Under a mile, and children at primary school are very likely to walk. However, over a mile, and between 2-5 miles, they are significantly more likely to be driven. Secondary school children are more likely to walk distances up to two miles and after that mainly rely on cars and public transport. 


Why is this the case? The further pupils live away from school, the harder it is to walk, or cycle and the longer it takes. This is especially the case for primary school children, who have less of the physical strength, stamina and focus required to walk, scoot or cycle longer distances or navigate hills that may be on the way.


The need for younger pupils to be accompanied by their parents to schools & the extra  physical challenges they face walking & cycling longer distances means that the highest school run driving rates are in the primary school sector at journey distances of over one mile from school.

Data Insights
Our interactive data dashboard here provides school, ward & borough insight on the distances primary school children are travelling to school.

UK School Types - State catchment schools & independent schools

The distance pupils live from school is, in turn, dictated by different factors, and one main factor is school types. Different school types have different admission criteria, and these impact how far away pupils live from school. 

Catchment schools

The majority of state-funded schools select pupils based on how close on the map they live to their school, precisely to make this twice daily journey convenient for the majority of pupils. These schools are typically known as catchment schools.  

Non-catchment schools - Faith, grammar and independent schools

Faith schools, grammar schools, and independent schools have a different admission criteria, not based on proximity from school. These schools prioritise different factors, such as religious affinity, academic performance, or ability to pay school fees. As a result, the majority of pupils at these schools will live further away and these school types are likely to have higher school run driving rates.


Our terminology

We have classified any school that does not select pupils solely on the basis of where the pupils live (such as a faith school, grammar school and independent school) as a “non-catchment” school

Data Insights
Our interactive data dashboard here provides insight into how much traffic different primary school types are likely to create, at ward and borough level. 

Population Density

Even for catchment schools, where children are admitted based on their proximity to the school, the distance a pupil lives from their school is affected by the amount of people that live in their area.


In areas where there is high population density, in central London for example, people live in flats, apartment blocks, or houses with a small footprint, pupils will live closely clustered around their local catchment school.  In areas that are more suburban, with detached housing spread further apart, more green spaces and sprawl, pupils will live further away from their local catchment school. These longer distances means that they are likely to have higher school run driving rates.

Data Insights
Our interactive data dashboard here provides school, ward & borough insight on the numbers of primary school children travelling more than one mile to school.

Lack of safe, accessible, alternatives - Safely crossing the road

In order for families to decide to walk, scoot or cycle the school run, they need to feel confident that these journeys will be safe and that safely crossing the road and navigating traffic is easy for their children.  Measures like wide pavements, clear sight-lines, convenient pedestrian crossings, cycle lanes, and school streets around schools (to name a few) create safe routes to school.  Research shows an absence of these means driving can sometimes be seen as the safest option.


Likewise, for families to use public transport instead of a car, there needs to be reliable & well-connected public transport options that are comparable in terms of journey length to a car-trip. However, even in areas with relatively high Public Transport Accessibility Levels (PTAL), the infrastructure can be inappropriate for families doing the school run. For example train stations with no step-free access make it very difficult for parents with children in buggies (ie younger siblings of those being taken to school). Likewise buses only have room for two buggies on board at any one time, so families with buggies often have long waits to get on a bus.

Working parents & a lack of government travel support

We think the pressure of two working parents is a big factor contributing to the current high driving rates. According to the 2021 census, 74% of families have both parents working, with the most common arrangement being that both parents work full-time. This means both parents may have to get to work directly after dropping their children off at school. This is a modern phenomenon, with the number of stay-at-home parents having halved since the early 90s. But this societal shift hasn't been accompanied by any change to the school run, in order to make it easier for parents.  For example, the statutory walking distance, over which free school transport must be provided, hasn't changed since it was set in 1944; two miles for up to eight year olds, and three miles for over eight year olds. This is despite huge changes in the physical, social and cultural landscape. Solutions that enable children to walk to school focus on parents, such as parent-led walking buses. We think we need more collective approaches to the school run that don't require  a parent from each family making the journey. This could be government-funded, supervised walking lines, bike buses or mini-buses, enabling parents to go to work, knowing their child was being safely walked to school, with all the benefits that entails in terms of health. 

And the rest....

Personal Safety

For some communities, the school run is accompanied by fears regarding crime and personal safety. Parents worry about after-school muggings and criminal activity affecting their child. This can be one of the reasons why parents drive older secondary school children to and from school, who may otherwise be able to travel independently. Similar to road danger, much of this can be attributed to the safety of the environment.


Anecdotally, we often hear that students have a lot of bags, books, sports equipment which makes it difficult for them to be able to walk to school. This is more of an issue at independent schools, and affects both primary and secondary school children.​

Data Insights
With so many daily journeys, and so many different reasons for them, the school run is a complex problem, with no one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, we need a series of continuous interventions made at school, ward, borough, city and government level.

We think our data analysis can help to shine a light on where school run driving rates are likely to be highest and why, which can help inform the right solutions for different types of schools, wards and boroughs.

Click here to go to our data page >
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