Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Walking to school was common in the 1980s but now we drive our kids in record numbers

In the 40s I walked to school by myself -- crossing a main road on the way -- aged about 6. That was normal then

In the 1970s and '80s most of us walked or rode a bike to primary school without thinking too much about it.

Cars were expensive and few families had more than one, so if your school was close and the rain or heat wasn't terrible, walking or cycling was the most obvious way to get there.

My family has been very lucky to live close to a local school situated near good public transport, and walking to school has always been part of our routine.

When my two boys were too young to walk or cycle on their own, it was easy to walk with them as part of my journey to work.

Leaving the house for school in those days felt like escaping through a magical sliding door — from the rush and stress of the school morning routine to a slower, calmer world.

Once outside the door, irritation about lost lunchboxes and last-minute permission slips would dissipate. Our paces matched. I got to hear a bit more about what was going on in their young lives and minds.

Then there is the quiet pleasure of the walk itself: the unscheduled but happy meeting of a favourite friend or animal along the way, the seasonal scoffing of mulberries overhanging a laneway en route, the complicit exchanges of harried parents, a sudden waft of jasmine announcing spring.

Walking to school helps us to feel as though we're living in a real neighbourhood and community that only footfall on pathways can create.

The benefits of living as much as possible outside of the urgent, car-driven world seem obvious.

Today we drive our kids to school in record numbers. The national rate of "active travel to school", as the experts call it, has declined over the past 40 years from 75 to 25 per cent of trips.

Much of this can be explained by growing car ownership, changing family dynamics and increasing distances between some homes and schools.

But there have also been changes in how far kids are allowed or are willing to go. Nearly 60 per cent of Australian parents report that the distance from home to school is three kilometres or less.

It's a trend that's reflected in many other OECD countries and worries policymakers in the fields of both health and transport.

Health professionals estimate that more than 70 per cent of children and 91 per cent of young people do not meet minimum physical activity recommendations.

But it's also a transport issue.

In recent years I have worked with other transport policymakers and planners on how future transport systems can keep up with growing populations. The research clearly shows small changes in people's travel behaviour to make fewer car trips can make a big difference in how the transport system copes.

"Active travel to school" is one of 10 priority areas proposed by the Australian Health Policy Collaboration and more than 70 leading chronic disease experts to fix the growing obesity and chronic health crisis.

And you don't have to be a transport professional to see that school trips in cars are also bad for traffic congestion and road safety. Queues of cars around schools and local roundabouts make crossings dangerous for walkers and cyclists.

While these trips may seem short and innocuous, the sheer volume of them also clogs up the wider network, diminishing air quality and the way our cities function.

Experts estimate that the additional congestion costs generated by school trips in cars is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

So what can we do to get more kids walking or riding a bike to school? Good pedestrian infrastructure, pleasant walking and cycling environments and safe crossings are critical, of course.

The good news is that transport planners are increasingly seeing streets as places for walking or riding bikes, and pedestrians and cyclists as more than just safety risks to be mitigated.

But parents' perceptions are also a key obstacle to more kids cycling and walking to school, particularly when the decision is to let them do this independently.

Could you be breaking the law?

It's not helpful that in some places letting a child go to school on their own could be classed as breaking the law.

In 2017 the ABC reported on a notice published in a school newsletter bearing the Queensland Police Service insignia telling parents that children under the age of 12 cannot walk or ride to school alone.

For the past 10 years, Queensland's criminal codes have made it an offence to leave a child under 12 unsupervised for an "unreasonable" time (although legally speaking the report argued that this was unlikely to mean a blanket ban on kids under 12 making their way to school alone).

But parents' thoughts and perceptions on official guidance and social norms are important. A 2016 study in Victoria found parents were more likely to restrict their child's independent mobility if they were worried about being judged by others.

However, the biggest barrier to more parents letting their children walk or ride to school alone is parental concern about speeding cars and other traffic dangers.

This is followed by fears around "stranger danger" and abduction (although statistically speaking, kids are much safer on the street than online).

It's understandable — the urge to keep kids safe is hardwired in parents. But when we choose to drive to school, we only add to the real traffic dangers and risks even as we continue to frame it as a problem created by others.

Or as a legendary outdoor poster by Dutch satnav maker TomTom proclaimed in 2010: "You are not stuck in traffic. You are traffic."

But it's also possible that continued anxiety around exposure to others (particularly on public transport) may persuade us that we're better off staying inside our bubbles on wheels.

These days, my kids are older and get to school by themselves.

My youngest son still walks to school via the same route I take to the train station and prefers neither of his parents accompany him. It's a change that seemed to happen almost overnight. One morning the boys simply walked out the door on their own, leaving a house that felt suddenly very quiet.

I do miss walking and talking with them sometimes; that everyday invitation to spend more time in the present.

But it would be hard not to celebrate their independence, confidence and ability to successfully navigate the outside world for themselves.

I also hope that walking to school with the kids will mean remembering less about the fretful assembly of school lunches and missing library bags and more about chance encounters with puddles, plants and people.

And sometimes, on a lucky day, the feeling of a small hand slipped quietly, without too much thought, into mine.

"Social housing" in action

There are many stories like the one below

An Adelaide family whose social housing apartment was riddled with mould and left without repairs for seven months has been given a new home just days after a visit from federal Opposition leader Anthony Albanese.

Nathan Andersen had reported severe mould in his bathroom ceiling from a leaking pipe in the flat above back in March, and was concerned it was a health hazard for his son.

It took until last week, after the dire need for repairs gained media attention during Mr Albanese’s visit to SA, for there to be progress. “It was all stuck in the woodwork for months and months and months and nothing,” Mr Andersen said.

“When (they) came out to do an inspection again, when they had a look at the roof, they deemed it unliveable because it’s a health hazard,” he said.

“They got back to me within two hours and said they had a house for me.” Mr Andersen welcomed the result, saying: “I’ve got upgraded to a three-bedroom house with a yard – it’s really great.”

He was told the delay was due to miscommunication.

Federal Labor’s housing spokesman Jason Clare said: “It shouldn’t have to take a visit from the Leader of the Opposition to get this fixed.”

He said there were “100,000 stories just like Nathan’s across the country” where tenants were living in social housing that desperately need to be repaired.

Labor has called on the Federal Government to fund social maintenance as part of its COVID-19 recovery package to create jobs for the construction sector and to improve conditions for tenants.

University of Tasmania aims to divest entirely from fossil fuels by the end of 2021

All this will do is hand a bargain to less loony investors

UTAS vice chancellor Rufus Black said the university had decided to begin moving away from fossil fuel investments.

He said UTAS already had no direct shareholdings in fossil fuel companies and said to date fossil fuel-exposed investments represented 0.6 per cent of the university’s portfolio.

“We are working to be out of fossil fuel investments by the end of next year, but we have also taken the view that divestment is not enough,” Prof Black said.

“We need to invest to change the world. An economy consistent with a stable future for our climate is very different to the one we have today.

“New ways of doing business, new technologies, new ways of organising our society are all urgently needed.

“Therefore the university has changed its investment strategy to target those investments that support the delivery of a zero carbon economy.”

Prof Black said “our grandchildren will live into an era where our planet will be transformed into the dramatically negative unless we do something bold”.

In 2018 UTAS students protested for the university to adopt a fossil fuel-free policy by brandishing a sign of the word “divest” on kunanyi/Mt Wellington.

The UTAS announcement comes on the launch day of Global Climate Change Week which Tasmania, and more specifically, UTAS, is hosting this year.

The university will hold stewardship of the stewardship of the fast-growing Global Climate Change Week initiative until 2025.

Started five years ago by two academics at the University of Wollongong, the week will feature nearly 200 public lectures, panel discussions and arts activities on almost every continent.

“We have universities from all over the world registered and a whole range of diverse and interesting activities that are limited only by the imaginations of the people involved,” co-chair Professor Fred Gale said.

“We want to make sure there is action on climate change around the world at university level. It’s a critical issue. We’ve got a decade to turn this around.”

The university ranked third worldwide when the Times Higher Education University Impact Rankings assessed 376 institutions against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals earlier this year.

Greenies versus fishermen

The global conservation status of a NSW marine park is at risk after the Berejiklian government weakened its sanctuary status without consultation to allow recreational fishing, documents show.

Montague Island, located off the south coast, was among the first 25 sites to be granted so-called Green Listing by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Documents obtained under freedom of information show both National Parks and IUCN raised concerns about the impact of easing protection.

Fisheries minister Adam Marshall announced last December six marine park sanctuaries would be open to recreational fishing without consulting either the public or the Batemans Marine Park Advisory Committee, according to an email sent that month by Joanne Wilson, a senior parks policy officer.

"Opening up the sanctuary zones in the marine park to line fishing, netting, and taking bait will remove all areas of refuge and breeding for fish that then spill over to other areas, and cause a reduction in the health and resilience of the marine ecosystems around Montague Island," Dr Wilson wrote.

It was "a worrying sign" the decision Fisheries hadn't bothered to consult with the parks service before the decision and "there is a risk" it won't be asked about other key issues, she said.

The move had also come just days before the renomination of Montague Island's Green List status, and it placed "future renominations at risk", Dr Wilson's email, obtained by the Herald, said.

A separate document, dated Christmas Eve, from the IUCN's Green List Committee, congratulated Montague Island Nature Reserve for achieving its status but "expressed its concern about any relaxation" of protections.

It said the extraction of fish from the two reserves – covering roughly a third of the waters around the 81-hectare island – would affect availability of food for seabirds. The committee "reserves the right to review [the Green List status] should there be adverse implications for seabird viability", the letter said.

Minister Marshall defended the proposed changes to fishing access – that are still to formally gazetted – as an election promise taken by the Coalition to the 2019 election.

"Community members will be given another opportunity to provide feedback on the proposed changes over a minimum of two months through the established public consultation process," he said, adding both he and Environment Minister Matt Kean have to sign off on any temporary or longer change.

Mr Kean said the marine parks were popular tourist destinations, "home to important marine biodiversity and a treasured part of the local community”.

“I am aware of the strong views of stakeholders, including the IUCN, regarding the future of the sanctuary zones in the Bateman’s Bay Marine Park," he said. "For this reason I intend to visit the Marine Park and see for myself this unique and precious part of our state.”

Australian farmers want illegal workers too

Farmers have pilloried the Federal Government for ruling out an illegal worker amnesty that would allow undocumented workers to come forward without fear of being deported.

Victorian Farmers' Federation spokeswoman Emma Germano has suggested the Government was "the ultimate dodgy labour hire company that financially underpins a model that is not fair, not ethical, and not sustainable", having ruled out the proposal.

On Monday night, before a hearing of Senate Estimates, Employment Minister Michaelia Cash confirmed the Government would not allow such an amnesty. "The Government's position is there will not be an amnesty," Senator Cash said.

"An amnesty would send a dangerous message that it is okay to flout our strong visa and migration rules, principles that this Government has worked incredibly hard over a period of time to secure," she said.

The hearing heard from Government officials that there are an estimated 70,000 unlawful, non-citizens in Australia.

Some farm groups, including the VFF, had been calling for an amnesty to help the industry address its issues with undocumented workers and clean up the industry.

Ms Germano, one of the first to advocate for illegal workers to come forward, with protections, in 2017, said farmers were frustrated the Government was not prepared to pursue the idea.

"Farmers are p***ed off that they [Government] pretended to look at it when they never had genuine intention of making this thing go through," she said.

"Instead they support a black market for horticulture wages that undermines the farmers that are compliant and pay the right wages. "It also puts the undocumented workers in constant danger."

A three-year investigation into worker exploitation has found some foreign workers on Australian farms are "bonded like slaves" to dodgy labour hire contractors.

Earlier this month, Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said the Federal Government had discussed an amnesty as a potential initiative to help address a farm worker shortage.

The proposal was raised by Victorian Agriculture Minister Jaclyn Symes at a meeting of agriculture ministers earlier this year in light of the COVID-19 restrictions which have prevented workers from entering Australia.

An amnesty is supported by the West Australian Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan.

Last year, a report by the University of Adelaide found Australian farmers often relied on illegal labour or risked leaving their crops to fail.

It said worker exploitation had become the "established norm".

Typically, about 70 per cent of the horticulture industries workforce is foreign, and there have been concerns raised about how farmers will harvest their crops this summer due to Australia's decision to close its borders in March.




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