Getting to school in the countryside

This post is part of a series, starting at “What would you do here?”, on making utility cycling attractive in rural Britain.

In the Netherlands, children cycle to school. Almost all of them. Unaccompanied from the age of 8 or 9. You only wouldn’t cycle if you lived so close that it’s quicker to walk, and even then you might cycle sometimes anyway, so that you can go places with friends afterwards. Children there are fitter, healthier, and freer, less dependent on the parents’ taxi service. British authorities talk a lot about wanting children to walk and cycle more and to be ferried around in parents’ cars less, but have so far done little that has actually succeeded in making that happen. What would it take to make cycling to school possible in our rural British case study subject?

The village is lucky to be served by its own primary school. Most of the children live within 1km of it, and so walk. A few are driven in from more distant scattered dwellings and farms, and the previously described treatments to main roads and country lanes should make cycling a more attractive option for them. Once those treatments have been implemented, many people will switch their journeys to bicycle without prompting, but marketing activity and assistance with personal transport plans might further help the shift. UK local authorities and consultants like Sustrans have a lot of experience with this kind of marketing and assistance, but their projects usually have little real impact because they happen before the roads are fixed.

Most of the 11-16 year old children from the village attend school in the small market town Sturminster, 6km south east — well within the easily cycled range, but of course, almost nobody cycles it. There is no public bus between Stalbridge and Sturminster, but at least four dedicated council subsidised school buses run between the two, taking a variety of slow meandering routes to collect from the scattered dwellings and farms on the lanes between the two towns. (One of the bus routes is even taken 200 yards up this narrow street, only to have to do an awkward 3 point turn at a side-road, just to ensure that the kids aren’t forced to get 200 yards of exercise on the way to the bus stop.) Standard stuff for rural Britain.

I was abnormal in choosing, sometimes, when the weather was fair, to cycle — it was at least as fast as the ancient bus on its meandering route, and it added some variety after four years of it. A dozen other people used bicycles to get to school, but only because they lived in the narrow band that is too close to qualify for the free bus and far enough that cycling would be significantly quicker than walking. And because they had parents who didn’t care enough to wrap them up in 4x4s every day.

At the moment there is no good direct route between Stalbridge and Sturminster. The ‘A’ road, even if given the cycling infrastructure that ‘A’ roads need, takes a wide detour. The red route marked on the map is the best route, using country lanes (currently busy with through traffic) and a ‘B’ road.

The ‘B’ road is a low priority candidate for dedicated cycling infrastructure, but it might benefit more from Dutch-style engineering to reinforce those easily ignored speed limits. The route is again indirect, giving cycling a time disadvantage, and has an unattractive hill.

The blue route is flatter, and would be more direct but for the want of a more convenient river crossing in Sturminster. It also has the benefit of being designated as bridleway, and therefore free from motor vehicles for a lot of the distance.

But this comes with the disadvantage of having seen no maintenance in decades.

And disappearing into green lane for a while.

Before a proper surface reappears a quarter of a mile later.

With a refreshed surface and a better river crossing, this could become a useful route.

But wait, there’s potentially a better route. The best possible route to make cycling attractive is direct and flat, giving it a competitive advantage over cars and buses on the winding lanes. You can see where that route might be:

A rail trail here would be better than any lanes or bridleways or main road cycle tracks, giving cycling all the advantages that come with a direct, flat, away-from-traffic route. There already is an amateur rail trail, a few hundred yards long, in the village:

But the trackbed was sold off in bits to all the farmers, so the trail runs out at the first property boundary:

Easy to revolve if the councils had the will to buy back the trackbed — much of it preserved as field access. They’ve already done it on the other side of Sturminster Newton, giving the people of Shillingstone an easy route into the town. New river crossings would still be required where the old railway bridges were demolished, but that’s another problem solved on the other side of Sturminster, with new bridges:

Those bridges cost about £300,000 — an excellent investment given the struggles the county council have been having finding cuts in the annual travel-to-school budget. The bridges could pay for themselves within a decade in school bus reductions alone.

Better if the whole lot could be properly surfaced, like these routes in Bristol and north Somerset:

Apparently some folk object to giving traffic-free routes like these a proper surface because it “detracts from the rural setting”, as if a flat straight railway embankment through dairy fields could be imagined as pristine virgin wilderness if only the path were surfaced with scruffy noisy muddy gravel instead of clean asphalt. Poor surfaces are less attractive to most potential users, but especially to potential bicycle users — they require more effort, cause more mechanical problems, and get dirty. In terms of modal shift, they won’t be as effective, leaving more cars and buses on the lanes, and those really do disturb the rural tranquillity.

All you need then is to fix the ridiculous sprawling speed-inviting junction beside the school…

…and fill one of the car parks with bike parking.

A secondary school in Assen, Netherlands.

This route would have benefits far beyond kids getting to school, of course. Continuing north, a couple of km from the village it crosses the A30, where it would intersect the cycle tracks the big road needs, and a couple of km beyond that it meets the West of England Main Line (Exeter-Salisbury-London), and so could greatly expand access to and feasibility of public transport beyond the infrequent bus services that make the detour into Stalbridge. Because it’s flatter and more direct than the main road, and because the main road has three sets of traffic lights between the town and the station, a high quality rail trail could be a very attractive transport option.

It would also be quite nice for leisure and tourism, of course — a long gentle continuous route down Thomas Hardy’s vale of little dairies. And that’s currently the justification that most people use when campaigning for the trailway: it would make a nice place for locals and tourists alike to walk and ride on a sunny Sunday. But those benefits, fantastic as they are, should be secondary to the potential this alignment has to be an important piece of modern transport infrastructure, providing cheap, healthy and independent mobility for kids; recession-proof access to centres of employment, retail, culture, and services; and easy access to the public transport network for a population that is very isolated from it. It’s a simple, quick, inexpensive, and easy win.

10 thoughts on “Getting to school in the countryside”

  1. Interesting post. I do have a couple of questions:

    1. How would you ensure the safety of an 11-year-old on a secluded country lane, cycling at 5pm in the dark for after school clubs (even if daylight saving was kept – indeed 8am would be quite gloomy if it was kept)?

    2. Many rural areas are not so well served. Here in North Shropshire, the primary school has a catchment of 8 miles (about 50% live within a mile), the two secondary schools are (from my house) 7 miles and 9 miles away. With a dispersed population there isn’t a single route to either school (other than the ferociously busy A roads.

    I think it could be a great idea, and in urban areas can work well. Not sure that many rural areas fit into your case study.

    1. What do you mean by “safety”? In terms of road safety, you do it by engineering a large reduction in traffic and speed on those country lanes. But there is also safety in the sense of the threat of crime. How big is that threat really? The Bristol railway path used to have a few issues where it goes through the inner city, before the path and street lighting was improved, but deep in the countryside? This “social safety” is to a large extent a separate issue that society needs to deal with, but there are, of course, better and worse ways to engineer a route for social safety. And if a route is good enough, the eyes that come with high usage will help to keep it safe.

      Eight miles might be a bit far for young primary school kids (but you say that half of them already live within easy walking distance, and anyway, young primary school kids tend to be accompanied by parents, who might decide to use child seats, trailers, trailer bikes, cargo bikes, or parent/child tandems, as are common where bicycles are well provided for), but secondary school kids should have no problem at all with it. All you need is to tame the lanes, and separate the fast from the slow on those ferocious ‘A’ roads.

      It’s interesting that you think these interventions would work well in urban areas. Urban areas need some similar but not identical interventions, and urban dwellers would would look at these and say the complete opposite to you — that they look great for rural areas, but, excuses excuses, it can’t be done in dense cities. They’d be just as wrong :)

  2. Well written article again. Recently riding back from Marlow to North London I was astounded by the fact the “quickest” route was down the A40, which was ok for an experienced cyclist doing a mini-time trial, but not for a child riding in rural sections between the major towns. I should have been able to zip along nice flat bridalways. It’s easy to lower standards and expect this level of poor infrastructure in London, but there is no reason for it in rural environments where bike and foot shoul be primary transport.

    Additionally your point on “rural aesthetic” is superb and needs to be expanded on to councils.

  3. I have relatives who live in the Sturminster area (they have 12 yr old son who is totally car dependent for school and leisure) and have thought about the logistics of cycling in the area a few times. I recently visited via a train to Sherborne – a dedicated cycle track to Sturminster would have been great in these circumstances.

    Excellent series of articles BTW, well thought out solutions to car dependency in rural areas. I live in rural west Devon and getting anywhere on a bike is difficult – although ongoing improvements to the Sustrans NCN 27 will make a big difference in the near future, so credit to Devon CC for doing something for cyclists.

  4. Up here in Scotland, transport is provided to children who live more than 3 miles from the nearest school (or 2 if they’re under seven) – presumably they’re expected to walk or cycle the distance otherwise. Of course, almost none of them do because there are no footpaths and the narrow roads are used by quarry lorries which take up the entire space of the road and roar along slowing for nobody. The end result is that parents drive their kids into town with them, making the little village schools even less viable, and another part of the rural community dies a death.

  5. In South Shropshire a feasibility study was done on using another old trackbed to connect the villages of Pontesbury and nearby Minsterley (46-page PDF linked from This project could well have now been kicked into the long grass by a council anxious to save money, but the potential VFM is significant for the local communities, which are linked by an arterial A-road.

    There is, as we know, real reluctance on the part of parents to allow children to cycle or walk any significant distance to school. I suspect this is partly the fear of the unknown (paedophiles? dinner money thieves?) but also of the danger posed by traffic, so children are driven to school. A change of heart by the parents will only come with a combination of carrot & stick i.e. good, safe facilities and prohibitive cost & inconvenience of driving. I expect there to be a ‘tipping point’ where these two conditions are met and active travel becomes normal rather than the preserve of “the green and the keen” minority. Enthusiasm on the part of the child may bring that forward somewhat but I don’t see child-focussed education making a great deal of difference. In these financially constrained times it’s difficult to see how real progress can be made.

  6. I live in rural north Lancashire in a village connected to the nearest large town (Lancaster) by a four mile section of rail trail shared use cycle/footpath. ALL the secondary school age children in the village who attend Lancaster schools catch the (subsidised) bus or are driven by parents – not one cycles along the path. There is no history of crime along the path and it is actively promoted as a ‘leisure facility’ (it forms the first stage of the Way of the Roses). How on earth do we persuade parents and their teenage children to ditch the bus and use the perfectly good (and it is good – it’s fully surfaced and even lit until very late at night!) cycle path?? I’d welcome any suggestions!
    BTW, my husband and I moved to the village largely because of the excellent cycle facilities but we’re in a tiny minority in using them as an everyday transport option. Unfortunately the path seems to fall into the same category of resource as the local mini-golf course…

    1. Apologies, I should have added that I obviously don’t wish to see the bus service curtailed (two buses arrive within 5 minutes of each other at 8am, one – subsidised – for the school kids and one for everyone else; do we really need both??) – it just seems crazy that we subsidise a school bus when there is a much more sustainable option.

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