WHEN Scotland’s children head back to school today, how many of them will walk or cycle? A generation ago, it would have been the vast majority; now, most children are driven to school. We know the consequences of that – congestion around schools and a slowly growing obesity crisis – and yet still we do it. In less than 30 years, we have gone from a nation that walked to school to a nation that drives there, and the obvious danger is that we pass on the behaviour to our children.

The reasons for the change – outlined in a new survey of parents published today – are understandable to an extent. According to the study for the Scottish Parent Teacher Council and the charity Sustrans, many parents are worried about dangerous driving. They are also concerned about a lack of crossings and pavements and unsafe school entrances. Basically, parents judge that putting their children in the car is safer, although a large number of them also say it is just easier to do it that way. Whatever the reasons, the car is the number one choice.

It is not hard to see some of the ironies at work here. For instance, many parents quite understandably worry about their children being hit by cars and school entrances being unsafe, and yet by driving to school themselves, they are increasing traffic on the roads, especially near school gates, and thereby potentially creating greater risk for children rather than reducing it. If every parent left the car at home today, the area around school gates would become considerably safer.

It is also worth noting – although it can feel counter-intuitive – that, on the whole, our roads are much safer than they were. The number of road casualties is a fraction of what it was 50 years ago and even the streets around schools are safer thanks to the 20mph zones, crossings and traffic calming measures that have been introduced in the last 20 years or so. The problem is that traffic has increased considerably so for parents it all looks like it is getting worse.

Changing these perceptions, so that behaviour can also be changed in the longer term, will not be easy but if action is taken on a number of fronts, it can be done. Firstly, more children should be encouraged to walk or cycle safely, which means putting the subject at the heart of the curriculum in primary schools. The sedentary generation needs to be encouraged to get up and walk or cycle, and know how to do it safely, and school is the place to start.

Parents also have to be encouraged to change their behaviour but that is only likely to happen if we address some of their concerns by changing the way we design roads, streets, towns and cities. Scotland is sometimes unfavourably compared to the Netherlands on levels of cycling, but bike use among the Dutch did not change overnight – it was the result of concerted government policy and investment. The same needs to be happen in Scotland.

Sadly, however, the reality is that new roads and housing estates are still being built around car drivers rather than a range of users. That has to change, along with a range of other measures: greater use of 20mph speed limits, for example, as well as better training for drivers and cyclists; greater exclusion zones for cars around schools may also have to be considered.

The Scottish Government says it is committed to the principle of making walking and cycling easier and has a target of at least 10 per cent of all journeys being made by bike within two years. But its commitment to a change in tactics, and the investment that needs to come with it, is less certain. It has not taken long for walking and cycling to school to be replaced by driving, but a long-term aim of ensuring every road is designed for every user has the potential to turn things around. Most children will still be driven to school today, but it doesn’t have to be that way forever.