ABU DHABI // Walking or cycling to school is not an option for more than 90 per cent of children in the capital, a study by the education authority has found.
The survey of 1,145 families in Abu Dhabi found 45 per cent of children went to school by car, 38 per cent took the bus and 7 per cent used public transport. Only 9 per cent walked or cycled.
Even among those who live within two kilometres of their school, only 15 per cent got to class under their own steam according to the report, co-authored by Dr Masood Badri, head of research at Abu Dhabi Education Authority (Adec), and Tarek ElMourad, the head of strategy.
"These results show Abu Dhabi needs to put in place aggressive plans to promote active commuting to school as a main mode of transport," Dr Badri said.
In Denmark, more than half of all children cycle to school from the age of 8. A survey there found the activity improved their concentration at school and overall well-being.
But parents here say they do not think it is safe for their children to do the same. Cycle lanes and pavements are not commonly found in older parts of the city and, even where they do exist, 80 per cent of parents in the survey said they did not think drivers would slow down or stop at crossings.
"To promote an active society we have to look at safety and practicality," said Dr Michal Grivna, the associate professor of community medicine at UAE University.
Of the 130 patients injured in cycling accidents and taken to Al Ain Hospital between 2001 and 2007, Dr Grivna said 73 had been struck by a moving vehicle.
"None of the patients was wearing a helmet. This is not enforced and increases their risk," he said.
Dr Badri said there should be a push for tougher policies.
"There are no speed limit signs for most of these areas or zones," he said. "If this is not looked into, parents will never feel safe allowing their children to walk."
In Al Ain, where schools are grouped together outside the residential area, there is no choice but to use a car or bus for commuting.
If schools are built close to homes, Dr Grivna said, there could be an effort towards group walking, accompanied by a parent.
While older communities have near insurmountable planning problems, Adec plans to build hundreds of state schools by 2018.
The council says it aims to see almost 90 per cent of children walking or cycling eventually.
"The organisation of city space related to school location and allocation must be rethought to increase children's safety," the report noted. "Changes must be made along the entire route [that] children are likely to take to get to school."
Dr Badri pointed to neighbourhoods such as Reem Island and Saadiyat, where construction continues. "It will be easy to integrate walkways and bike lanes in the design," he said.
Saadiyat, which will be home to Cranleigh School, will have an integrated network of cycling and pedestrian areas.
"The roads on Saadiyat provide crossroad sections with walking spaces," said a spokesman for the Tourism and Investment Development Company.
"Students will have easy and safe access to school."
The final obstacle, then, will be overcoming perceptions: 88 per cent of parents agreed the culture of walking is weak. Almost 70 per cent of the parents believed their children would be made fun of if they biked to school.