Walking to school in Britain: what are the challenges, benefits and distance barriers?

School Runnings

In recent years, the UK government has been working to encourage more children to actively commute to school by foot or by bicycle, after it was reported(opens in a new tab) that the percentage of primary school children who walk to school fell from 70% to 51% within a single generation.

Walking to school can have many benefits for children, their parents and their communities, however there are numerous factors that can prevent children and their parents from doing so, including distance.

Previous research has suggested that any walking distance to school that increases beyond 1.5 miles begins to seriously decrease the likelihood of a child walking to school.

We’ve calculated which of Britain’s local authorities come closest to meeting these optimal distances between secondary schools as an indication of where distances may be too far for local school commutes, and we have also explored what the barriers and the benefits are behind walking instead of driving on the school run.

Key findings

  • Secondary schools in England are within 1.5 miles of another local secondary school just 17% of the time, in Wales it is 10% of the time, and in Scotland it’s 9% of the time

  • One in four secondary schools in Britain are not within 1.5 miles of at least one other local secondary school, despite 1.5 miles being found to be an optimal maximum distance for walking to school

  • Secondary schools in London have the most frequent optimal distances for walking to school - one school is within 1.5 miles of another school 33% of the time, which is more frequent than any other region in Britain

  • Only six local authorities in Britain meet the UK Government’s statutory walking distance of 3 miles 100% of the time, in terms of distance between secondary schools: Worcester, Tamworth, Gosport, City of London, Stevenage, and Melton

  • The City of London is the only local authority where schools are within at least 1.5 miles of another school 100% of the time

  • The school commute is particularly challenging in rural local authorities for adolescents wanting to walk, as schools are within 3 miles of other schools only 9% of the time, and within 1.5 miles just 5% of the time

  • The average distance between secondary schools in rural areas of Britain is 14.9 miles, and even in urban areas it is 3.5 miles - half a mile above the UK Government’s statutory distance of 3 miles between home and school

  • We’ve highlighted some of the biggest challenges that children face in walking to school, as well as some lesser-known benefits for those who are able to or thinking of walking in future

The challenges that kids and parents can face when walking to school

Depending on various factors, walking to school can be difficult for children and their parents. The most obvious barrier is distance; if you live in a very rural area, the walk to your nearest school might take hours, and the road there may not have a safe path to walk on. Urban areas can offer their own unique challenges, like a lack of traffic crossings.

There are other barriers at play, too: a 2019 survey of Australian parents(opens in a new tab) found that 57% of them don’t feel comfortable letting their kids walk to school without parental supervision, despite 87% of respondents also agreeing that walking to school is good for a kid’s health. With busy work commitments, parents simply might not have the time to walk their child each weekday morning and afternoon.

Closer to home in Wales, a recent poll(opens in a new tab) by Living Streets found that traffic is named by parents as one of the biggest barriers to their children walking to school, along with ‘distance from home’, and ‘too many cars being parked on pavements’.

Other factors identified(opens in a new tab) that can affect how likely kids are to walk to school include family income (to afford access to public transport), concerns about traffic and about local crime en route.

Official figures show that less than half (42%) of secondary school pupils were walking to school(opens in a new tab) in 2020. By 2025, the government’s Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy(opens in a new tab) aims to raise the number of children of all ages walking to school to 55%.

With this in mind, we wanted to gain a better understanding of: where in Great Britain is it the easiest and most difficult to walk to secondary school?

What we did

Using two different versions of optimal distance guidelines, we analysed the locations of every secondary school in Britain to discover which local authorities and regions boast the most and least optimal distances between schools.

The average distance between secondary schools and how often they meet particular distance thresholds of 1.5 miles and 3 miles are being used here as proxies for how much of a barrier distance may be for secondary school pupils and parents who would want to walk instead of drive or use public transport on the school run.

Which local authorities have the longest and shortest average distances between their secondary schools?

In Highland, Scotland, the average distance between two secondary schools is 54.3 miles. That’s more than any other local authority in Great Britain. Scottish local authorities make up six spots on our ranking of the longest average distances between secondary schools.

Longest average distances between secondary schools
Rank (average distance) Local Authority Average distance (miles)
1Highland54.3
2Argyll and Bute45.3
3Powys31.9
4Dumfries and Galloway27.7
5Cornwall26.4
6Aberdeenshire25.3
7Shetland Islands23.7
8Northumberland23.4
9Gwynedd20.6
10Orkney Islands20.1

In contrast, secondary schools in the City of London are on average less than a mile (0.81 miles) apart. Other London boroughs make up the majority of locations in our shortest average distance ranking.

Shortest average distances between secondary schools
Rank (average distance) Local Authority Average distance (miles)
1City of London0.81
2Hammersmith and Fulham1.35
3Worthing1.36
4Cambridge1.37
5Tower Hamlets1.43
6Harlow1.43
7Kensington and Chelsea1.48
8Camden1.49
8Hackney1.49
8Stevenage1.49

Which local authorities in Britain have the most optimal walking distances for secondary school pupils?

In 2014, the UK Government advised(opens in a new tab) local authorities around the country to provide free transport for secondary school-aged children if they lived beyond 3 miles away from their school. Based on the average walking speed of around 3 miles per hour, this would still mean an hour-long walk to school.

However, a 2008 study in Ireland found(opens in a new tab) that 1.5 miles is much more of an optimal walking distance from home to school, and even adding one mile to this distance decreased the likelihood of children walking to school by 78%. As recently as 2019, figures from the Department for Transport(opens in a new tab) show that the average distance travelled to school by a pupil in the UK is 2.6 miles.

Using these guidelines, we wanted to find out: which local authorities offer the most optimal walking distances to school for their students, and which fall the furthest short?

Using the 3-mile threshold set by the UK Government, we discovered that in six local authorities in Great Britain, every secondary school is within 3 miles of each other. These local authorities include Melton in Leicestershire, Stevenage in Hertfordshire, and the City of London.

Local authorities offering the most optimal walking distances to school for their students
Rank Local Authority % of time within 3 miles
1Melton100%
1Stevenage100%
1City of London100%
1Gosport100%
1Tamworth100%
1Worcester100%
7Hackney97.8%
8Kensington and Chelsea97.1%
9Cambridge96.8%
9Hammersmith and Fulham96.8%

In contrast, seven local authorities in Great Britain have no secondary schools within 3 miles of each other per local authority. These include large and less densely populated Scottish local authorities like the Orkney Islands and the Scottish Borders.

Local authorities offering the least optimal walking distances to school for their students
Rank Local Authority % of time within 3 miles
1Maldon0%
1East Devon0%
1Hambleton0%
1Orkney Islands0%
1Scottish Borders0%
1Shetland Islands0%
1Isle of Anglesey0%
8Powys1.1%
9Highland1.7%
9Argyll and Bute1.8%

Next, we went in search of the local authorities where secondary schools are most and least likely to be within a 1.5-mile walking distance threshold. We discovered that the City of London is the only local authority in Great Britain where local secondary schools are within 1.5 miles of each other 100% of the time.

Hammersmith and Fulham comes in second place - with secondary schools there within 1.5 miles of each other 66% of the time.

Secondary schools most likely to be within a 1.5-mile walking distance threshold
Rank Local Authority % of time within 1.5 miles
1City of London100%
2Hammersmith and Fulham66%
3Worthing64.3%
4Cambridge63.2%
5Camden59%
6Kensington and Chelsea55.9%
7Tower Hamlets55.8%
8Hackney54.2%
9Harlow53.6%
10Norwich52.7%

We found plenty of local authorities in England that had no secondary schools within 1.5 miles of each other, including Blaby in Leicestershire, Bolsover in Derbyshire, and the Cotswold district in Gloucestershire.

The others are North East Derbyshire, Maldon, North Norfolk, South Cambridgeshire, South Norfolk, Uttlesford, Knowsley, Hastings, Horsham, and Lewes.

In Scotland, the local authorities of Argyll and Bute, the Orkney Islands, the Scottish Borders, and the Shetland Islands have no secondary schools within 1.5 miles of any other secondary school.

Over in Wales, there are no secondary schools in either Blaenau Gwent or the Isle of Anglesey within 1.5 miles of another.

When we also consider what percentage of secondary schools are within 1.5 miles of at least one other secondary school per local authority, in England it is 78% of secondary schools, Scotland 55%, and Wales 50%. Across Britain, one in four secondary schools are not within 1.5 miles of at least one other secondary school.

Which regions of Britain have the most secondary schools within optimal walking distances of another?

Going by the UK Government’s recommended threshold of a 3-mile walking distance to school, London has the closest proximity of secondary schools, with a secondary school being within 3 miles of another 72% of the time. The North West comes in second place, with secondary schools falling under the government threshold of 3 miles 43% of the time.

Using the 1.5-mile threshold, London comes out as the top region again: secondary schools there are within a radius of 1.5 miles of another secondary school 33% of the time. In the East of England and the South East, secondary schools are within a 1.5 mile radius of each other 20% of the time.

Which regions of Britain have the most secondary schools within optimal walking distances of another
Region % Within 3 miles % Within 1.5 miles
East Midlands35%13%
East of England42%20%
London79%33%
North East29%10%
North West43%16%
Scotland25%9%
South East41%20%
South West24%10%
Wales28%10%
West Midlands34%11%
Yorkshire and The Humber31%11%

Rural areas are much more likely to see schools placed further apart from each other

Unsurprisingly, we found that secondary schools in rural areas are much less likely to offer optimal walking distances than those in urban areas.

While over half (51%) of the time, the average secondary school in an urban local authority is within 3 miles of another school, secondary schools in rural areas are within 3 miles of each other only 9% of the time, on average.

A fifth (20%) of the time, secondary schools in urban areas are within 1.5 miles of another secondary school. The same is true in rural areas only 5% of the time, on average.

Commentary by Rosie McKissock – Business Manager Kids

“Efforts are being made by the UK Government and organisations such as Living Streets to encourage more children to walk to school. And there has been progress in recent years, for example, the proportion of secondary school children regularly walking to school increased from 34% in 2019 to 42% in 2020.

However, one of the biggest barriers that remains in stopping schoolchildren from walking to school is the distance from home to the school gates. Our analysis sought to gain a better understanding of where in Great Britain this barrier might be the greatest, and where walking distances are more optimal based on previously suggested guidelines from the UK Government and other peer reviewed studies.

To do this, we calculated the proximity between secondary schools and used this as a proxy for how much of a barrier distance may be for secondary school kids walking to school in different local authorities.

Unsurprisingly, the largest average distance between secondary schools was found in the expansive Scottish local authority of Highland, and the shortest average distance was found in the comparatively smaller and more densely populated City of London and other London boroughs.

This trend was consistent throughout Britain, with rural areas being much less likely than urban areas to have secondary schools within close proximity of each other, according to the thresholds of 3 miles and 1.5 miles that have been previously recommended as ‘optimal’ walking distances.

Although local authorities in urban areas fare better, it wasn’t by a lot; 80% of the time schools in urban areas are still out of the 1.5 mile distance recommendation. The average distance between schools in urban areas is also half a mile above the 3-mile threshold recommended by the UK Government.

It’s not feasible for every child to walk to school. However, if you are in the position to walk or accompany your child on a walk to school and would like to give it a go, we’ve put together a list of the top benefits of walking to school.”

The benefits of walking to school for parents and their kids

  1. You’ll get lots of exercise - Walking to school is an easy way of meeting the government recommendation for children and adolescents to get at least an hour of exercise a day. Even walking for 20 minutes has benefits for your overall physical and mental health. Walking every day will instil lifelong healthy habits in your child as they grow up.

  2. It will save you money - Walking to school is free! Not taking the car on the school run can save you a fortune on fuel, maintenance, and parking costs. Skipping public transport for a short journey will save you lots of money as well. A comfortable pair of girls school shoes or boys school shoes is the only investment you’ll need to make.

  3. It’s better for the planet - Skipping the school run by car is better for the environment. Driving produces carbon emissions, making walking a more eco-friendly way of getting to school. Walking also means that you’re not adding to harmful noise pollution caused by cars.

  4. There’s less exposure to pollution - According to a study carried out in Denmark(opens in a new tab), sitting in a car actually exposes you to more harmful emissions than if you were cycling or walking. Walking to school also reduces your exposure to noise pollution caused by loud traffic, proving a better option for looking after your hearing.

  5. It's the best way to start a day of learning - According to Sustrans, a charity that promotes walking and cycling, teachers report that pupils who walk to school arrive more (opens in a new tab) than those who use other methods of transportation. Parents and caregivers will reap the benefits of an energising morning walk, too.

  6. Your child will develop key skills - Walking with your child to school is a great way of helping them learn more about road safety and how to navigate the local area. This will help them develop independence and key decision-making skills. A comfortable pair of school shoes will help them on their way.

  7. You’ll learn more about where you live - Walking to and from school is a great way to learn more about your local area. Grab a pair of adventure-ready school trainers and use the walk to discover new routes and sights, which will add some excitement to the morning routine.

  8. It can improve your mental health - Walking to school is one way of boosting your endorphins and making you feel more positive at the beginning of the day. That boost of endorphins will also lower your stress levels and help you feel more relaxed.

  9. There’s more time for bonding - An energising walk to school is a great opportunity for bonding with your kids and learning more about their day. Making friends en route will increase your child’s confidence and you’ll both learn more about the school community as well.

  10. It provides an academic and creative boost - Several studies have shown that walking to school can boost a child’s academic performance more than any other mode of transportation. Research has shown that walking outside encourages creative thinking as well(opens in a new tab).

Methodology and sources

Our analysis was performed in June 2022 and considers every operational secondary school in England, Scotland, and Wales as of the 2021/2022 school year.

Schools were located via Google Maps and their geographic coordinates were used to measure the distance between each of them per local authority.

We measured which local authorities come closest to meeting the ‘optimal walking distances’ to secondary schools according to two different thresholds.

The first threshold comes from the UK Government’s Home Transport To School Guidance(opens in a new tab) (2014) where 3 miles is recommended as the statutory walking distance for adolescents on their commute to school. The second threshold comes from a study titled Active commuting to school: How far is too far?(opens in a new tab) (2008), where the optimal walking distance advised is 1.5 miles.

With these thresholds, we measured how often secondary schools in each local authority were situated within 1.5 miles and 3 miles of other schools situated in those areas. We have also categorised the differences in school proximity for rural areas vs urban areas.

Limitations

Our analysis considers the direct, straight-line distances (in miles) between secondary school addresses and is not able to account for the specific walking distances between addresses due to the nuances of walking paths and roads that exist in each area.

Our analysis is not able to consider areas where school pupils are most likely to be living in proximity to a local school. Further research on this subject in relation to how far school children have to travel to school can be found in Easton and Ferrari (2018): Children's travel to school—the interaction of individual, neighbourhood and school factors(opens in a new tab) and the Department for Transport’s annual National Travel Survey(opens in a new tab).

For any parents interested in finding the closest schools to their personal address, you can access the UK Government’s online search tool here(opens in a new tab).

More information on initiatives to get kids walking to school again can be found at Living Streets.org.uk(opens in a new tab).