How to obtain a healthy journey to school

af Søren Underlien Jensen


Danish children walk and cycle a lot and have one of the best child road safety records in the western world. The paper describes how Denmark has obtained a good child road safety and why Danish children choose to walk and cycle. Child road safety has predominantly been improved due to higher seat belt use and local safety measures such as safe routes to school projects. It is mostly safe routes to school projects that include speed reducing measures and signalization of junctions that are successful. The distance from home to school is an important factor in children’s transport mode choice. A decentralized Danish school structure is one reason to many walking and bicycle journeys. About half of the Danish children have less than 1.5 km to school. Road design and traffic does influence children’s mode choice, but to a rather limited extent.


The paper focuses on road safety and travel among Danish school children. Being a rich country, one may think Danish children seldom use non-motorized transportation. This is not true. About 60 % of school journeys are done by foot and bicycle in Denmark (1), which is more than the comparable figure of 14 % in USA (2).

Risk studies often conclude that walking and cycling is less safe than car and bus travel, so one may think that Danish children are relatively often killed in road traffic. This is neither true. Risk values from 2002 show that 1.3 per 100,000 children of 0-14 years of age are killed in Danish road traffic, which places Denmark as the fourth safest country for children among 28 OECD countries (3). In comparison, the figure is 3.5 per 100,000 children in USA.

These facts raise questions. What makes children choose to walk and cycle to school? How has Denmark attained such a good child road safety? The paper presents three different Danish studies (1, 4, 5). The three studies answer to some degree the two questions raised above using different study objects and methodologies. The first study describes safety effects of 104 safe routes to school projects, see section 2.3. The second study shows detailed impacts of road and traffic characteristics and travel time on school children’s transport mode choice, see section 3.2. The third study is described in other sections and reveals national safety and travel trends and to some degree gives backgrounds to these trends.

The studies should be viewed in the relevant context. Denmark is rather special regarding structure of primary and lower secondary schools and governance of school children transport compared to other developed countries. A typical Danish school has 300-400 pupils of which most are 6-16 years of age. This highly decentralized school structure means that about half of the school children have less than 1.5 km to school from their home (1).

The municipal reform in 1970 entailed that Danish municipalities became responsible for primary and lower secondary schools, bus transport of school children and the majority of roads, and that they should pay for these services through their tax revenue. Creation of safer routes to schools will benefit the municipality due to reduced costs to school buses and accident victims. Moreover the municipality has many options to improve children’s road safety and change their travel habits, e.g., through physical measures on roads, campaigns, physical changes of schools and changes of school hours and management.

The Danish Road Traffic Act has since 1976 joined the police and road administrations to implement measures that protect children against moving vehicles on their journey to and from school. The law for primary and lower secondary schools was changed in 1977. Municipalities must provide free travel between school and home for pre-school to class 3 children who have school route journeys longer than 2.5 km. The distance is six km for children in class four to nine and seven km for children in class ten. Municipalities must also provide free travel for children who have shorter school journeys, if concerns related to child road safety make it necessary. A circular from the Ministry of Justice in 1978 specified the concept of school route and when such a route should be classified as dangerous. In short, the legislation means that school children must be provided with relatively safe routes to school. If the municipality assesses a school route as dangerous, it must, if possible, make the route safer by implementing physical measures, or otherwise provide free travel. In practice, the municipality can choose the number of roads to be classified as dangerous. Legislation does not set a minimum level of safety.

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