I read a fascinating book recently on why Dutch kids are the happiest in the world. It all sounds pretty simple: they get plenty of freedom to roam, not too much homework, and loads of cycling. Sounds good! So how about the rest of us consider going Dutch? Let’s start with abolishing cars on the school run.
Just imagine: we could reduce traffic congestion, clean up the air in our towns and cities, get our little ones more active, and foster their independence. After all, schoolchildren across Europe – some as young as eight – are happily walking or cycling to school on their own, with no parental supervision. This is surely the way forward.
“Ah,” I hear you cry, “but what about their safety? What about cars, crazies and bogeymen?” I was discussing this very topic with friends who used to live in the Netherlands, and they reckon there are three main reasons why Dutch parents don’t worry so much about kids cycling to school: the infrastructure’s way better, every child does it, and there isn’t a tabloid newspaper culture shrieking about isolated incidents.
They also believe it’s far worse to deprive kids of their freedom by wrapping them in a protective bubble and eliminating all risk from their lives. This last point might resonate with parents who’d prefer their offspring to be outside climbing trees, playing in mud or building a fort, rather than indoors playing Xbox or on social media.
The global picture
Back to my book. Called The Happiest Kids in the World, it’s based on a 2013 Unicef study which found that children from the Netherlands scored way above Britain (ranked 16th out of 29 countries listed) in terms of material well-being, health and safety, education, behaviours and risks, and housing and environment. The USA languished near the bottom in 26th place, and Australia was not included due to lack of data.
The book’s co-authors – an American mom and British mum, both ex-pats – marvel at the fact that Dutch kids seem to sleep longer, have better relationships with their peers, suffer less status anxiety due to social inequality, enjoy regular family meals, and get more time with their parents than British and American children. Did you know the Dutch are the world’s most prolific part-time workers? Alright for some.
Obviously, some of these observations are anecdotal – except for the one about part-time working, that’s a fact – and many English-speaking parents would argue that their kids get plenty of sleep, no academic pressure, and enjoy excellent friendship groups. That’s great.
But it did make me stop and consider my own approach to parenting. I really like the idea of giving my own kids (four and five at the time of writing) the freedom to play outside with their friends, like I did growing up in the countryside. And I’ll always encourage them to ride their bikes, it’s just hard to stop worrying about all the traffic they’d encounter. But if there was a mass movement to get kids out on the streets again, maybe we could reclaim those streets for the benefit of everyone.
And the first step to achieving this is by banning cars from doing the school run.
The benefits of abolishing cars on the school run
This is a hypothetical scenario I’m suggesting. I realise that we can’t totally abolish cars from the school run. Some people absolutely must drive their kids to school – they live in the Arctic circle, say, where snow chains or dogsled are the only options. And the idea of slapping tickets on fleets of parental SUVs is hard to imagine, an environmentalist fantasy.
But humour me here, let’s look at all the benefits we’d enjoy IF we could somehow take all those cars off the road and away from schools…
First, there would be far less congestion and traffic fumes, particularly around schools. If you live in a city, you’re probably familiar with that nasty taste in the back of your throat that indicates air quality is not what it should be. The World Health Organisation says it’s a mass killer, responsible for over 3m preventable deaths worldwide annually due to heart disease, asthma and lung cancer. In fact, the EU’s five most prosperous economies (Germany, France, the UK, Spain and Italy) all fail the WHO’s recommended limits for air pollution.
Second, parents would insist on better cycling infrastructure. I know, it’s scary to think that our children would be out there, battling road traffic. But we can accompany them ourselves, and teach them how to navigate crossings. This seems to be the Dutch approach, a cycling culture that’s passed down from parent to child. Of course, if you live next to a motorway or freeway then maybe there’s just no way your child can safely cycle to school, and the school bus could be a better option. But for most of us, segregated cycle lanes would be an excellent option.
Third, kids would get more exercise – which has been proven by scientists to improve concentration and cognitive mapping in the developing brain. A 2012 Danish study found that kids who cycled or walked to school, rather than being driven, performed measurably better on tasks demanding concentration. A separate US study has found that children growing up in traffic-heavy neighbourhoods have a much more negative attitude towards their environment, and a weaker ability to accurately map it.
As mentioned above, it will also give children that crucial sense of independence, essential to life happiness. These things do matter. If young people feel they can ride to school, go visit friends when they want, or just get out and explore their neighbourhood, they’ll be happier, and parents will feel less like chauffeurs.
Let’s not forget, either, that cycling is a useful life skill – just as Dutch parents cycle everywhere themselves, it would be great if more adults in Britain, the US and Australia got on their bikes. It frustrates me just how car-dependent we’ve become here in the UK, sold on the promise of convenience and thrills, when the reality is our roads are absurdly clogged and road rage abounds. And the solution isn’t bigger roads, that’s a very short-term answer to the problem.
Finally, it’s so much cheaper to cycle everywhere; just think of all the money we’d save on petrol and public transport. Sure, the weather’s sometimes against us, and there could be hills to deal with, but both can be tackled with a bit of determination and the right gear. As the authors of my book on Dutch kids found out, it’s important to foster a bit of resilience and grit – this is often cited as a key factor in happiness later in life.
So what do you think – is it a hippy fantasy to ban cars from the school run, or should we all try going Dutch? Let me know if you agree in the comments below – I’ll reply to as many as possible.
A few quick stats...
Forty years ago, the majority (64%) of British kids would walk or cycle to school, and hardly any of them would travel by car. This picture has changed to the point where, today, nearly half (46%) of primary school children and one in four secondary school kids go by private vehicle. And bear in mind that over three-quarters of primary school kids (76%) travel less than 2 miles (3.2km), and around half of secondary school students are similarly placed.
The picture’s broadly similar in America: the Safe Routes to Schools project says that in 1969, around half (48%) of kids were walking or cycling to school, with most of the others (39%) taking the school bus. Fast-forward by forty years and these numbers have fallen off a cliff edge: in 2009, just 13% of US kids walked or cycled to school, while a whopping 45% were driven by their parents. That's an enormous 30 billion miles driven by parents to take their children to and from schools, representing 10-14 percent of traffic on the road during the morning commute.
Granted, there has been an increase in distance travelled (three-quarters of children now travel a mile or more, nationwide), but I’d still argue that anything under three miles can be accomplished on a bike by most kids.