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


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.

As we walked our paces matched and I got to hear about my children’s lives.(supplied)

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.

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

An anonymous primary school child walking to school in Brisbane.
What can we do to get more kids walking to school?(ABC News: Chris Gillette)

Fewer kids walk or bike to school

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.

A school crossing sign.
The report surveyed 3,400 people from across NSW.(ABC News: Robert Koenig-Luck)

Parents are role models

Whether we like it or not, parents are role models and habits are formative.

“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 to 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).

A boy with a maroon school backpack walks down a suburban footpath past houses and trees
Leaving the house for the walk to school feels like escaping through a magical sliding door from the stress of the morning routine to a slower, calmer world.(Supplied)

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.”

The impact of COVID-19

The pandemic is also influencing people’s travel choices. On the one hand, local walking and cycling trips are on the rise as more people work from home. Around Australia, demand for new bikes is famously outstripping supply.

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.

A child's hand inside his mother's
On a lucky day a small hand slips inside mine.(supplied)

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.

Alison Bunbury is a mother of two who encourages her boys to walk to school. She also works in transport policy but this opinion is her own.



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How America Planned To Fight World War III (In the 1980s)


Key Point: The U.S. Army fortunately never needed to face the Red Army in battle.

The United States may well be at the cusp of a decades-long struggle for military advantage with China, a struggle that hopefully will remain as cold as the late twentieth century struggle against the Soviet Union. But “cold” should never be misread as “static,” and the evolution of the relationship between the United States and USSR may hold lessons for how to think about the new relationship with China. Over the course of the Cold War, the balance of forces between the two antagonists changed dramatically. Sometimes dramatic technological or political changes shifted the ledger suddenly, but for the most part change came slowly. It is worthwhile to investigate how the United States and the USSR thought about different theaters across the extent of the struggle, and how the strategies and perceptions of strategies by the United States and the USSR affected the evolution of the struggle.

In this context it’s worthwhile to examine the final stages of the confrontation in Central Europe. AirLand Battle, published in 1982 and instituted during the mid-1980s, represented the final evolution of the U.S. Army’s answer to how to fight and win against the Soviet Union.

Origins

Two wars made clear the need to rethink U.S. land warfare strategy. The first was the Vietnam War, which had embroiled the U.S. Army in a long irregular campaign that had deemphasized its traditional conventional strengths, and eventually undercut the ability of the Army to rely on conscription for its manpower needs. The second was the Yom Kippur War, in which Soviet and Western weapons proved unexpectedly lethal in Arab and Israeli hands. Scaled up, the experience suggested that war on NATO’s central front would prove extraordinarily costly in terms of ordnance and vehicles. Precision-guided conventional munitions (PGMs) could cause nuclear-scale damage to an army on the move; combined with increasingly powerful information technology, they had the potential to completely disrupt an enemy advance.

The first response was Active Defense, which in some ways resembled the elastic defenses established by the Reichswehr in World War I, as well as the flexible defenses employed by the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front in World War II. Active Defense would require NATO forces to shift across a series of defensive positions, using PGMs to brutally attrite advancing Warsaw Pact forces and combine the Soviet advance to a few manageable corridors. Active Defense expected a quick war, as both sides would exhaust their stores of equipment and munitions.

But many within the Army were skeptical of Active Defense. It seemed to surrender the initiative to the Soviet Union, allowing the Red Army to make the core decision with respect to where the central fight would take place. Active Defense was not static defense; it involved an elastic concept of shifting across defensive positions in order to maximize Soviet costs and minimize NATO losses. In contrast to the perceived static nature of Active Defense, AirLand Battle would carve out a space for launching offensive operations against the flanks of a Warsaw Pact advance. The U.S. Army would continue to maneuver, even as Soviet forces advanced, and it would not restrict that maneuver to the retreat from one established defensive position to another, instead attacking opportunistically against any perceived Soviet weakness

AirLand Battle also sought to leverage what U.S. planners believed was a professional advantage in command and control. Since the latter stages of World War I, offensive maneuver warfare had required considerable delegation of authority to local, junior commanders. This delegation required trust in the capabilities of those commanders, trust that was largely not evident in the Soviet approach to offensive war. U.S. planners believed that more flexible command structures, along with more professional capable junior commanders, could help disrupt the Red Army’s excessively hierarchical approach to operational-level warfare.

Active Defense and AirLand Battle corresponded with a period in U.S. Air Force history that was, in some ways, similar to that of the U.S. Army. Vietnam had opened up series question regarding how the Air Force planned to fight a conventional war, and generational change in the USAF brought a group of “fighter generals” into the leadership of the organization. These generals were more willing to take seriously the need to fight and win a conventional war against the Soviet Union in Central Europe, and consequently more willing to take an interest in how the Army planned to conduct that fight. This helped the framers of AirLand Battle conceptualize the extension of the fight into the Soviet rear, where Soviet reserves, headquarters, and logistics would come under attack from a variety of air assets. Indeed, this extension resembled in many ways the “Deep Battle” concepts developed in the 1930s by Soviet military theorists.

And while AirLand Battle rejected some of the operational concepts of Active Defense, it did not fundamentally differ from its predecessor on how technology had made long-range weapons increasingly lethal. AirLand Battle also sought to take advantage of the proliferation of platforms that could provide information about developments in the battlespace. These included manned aircraft, but also satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles. This explosion of information required integration, which led to conceptual thinking similar to the network centric strategy that guides the U.S. military today.

In Action

Of course, the U.S. Army never needed to face the Red Army in battle. The collapse of the Soviet Union made the conventional balance in Central Europe irrelevant, for decades at least. But AirLand Battle guided the Army’s thinking about the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, an operation that did not require the defeat of a Soviet offensive, but did involve audacious maneuver warfare against a mobile enemy. The offensive thinking behind AirLand Battle, combined with its appreciation of the integration of information and technology into battle planning, also helped lay the foundation for the initial U.S. victory in Iraq in 2003.

At the same time, the focus on decisive conventional victory was in some ways a reaction to the inability of conventional arms to produce a decision in the Vietnam War; in Iraq, the U.S. Army would find to its great chagrin that decisive defeat of a conventional enemy did not provide a political answer to the problem of a population unreconciled to defeat. Ironically, victory in conventional maneuver warfare produced precisely the same outcome in Iraq that the U.S. Army had been trying to forget about in Vietnam.

Still, the legacy of AirLand Battle remains largely positive. It restored offensive maneuver to the U.S. toolkit, and gave the post-Vietnam U.S. Army a way of thinking about decisively defeating the Red Army on the conventional battlefield. It also proved intellectual fertile, opening space for new thinking on the integration of technology and doctrine. As Steven Metz has suggested, “The result, however, was not a radically new perspective on warfare, but the marriage of new technology with operational concepts that Patton or Guderian would have been comfortable with…Still, history may show that the true significance of this period for the U.S. Army was not the crafting of AirLand Battle, but the inculcation of a tradition of creativity and introspection.”

Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to the National Interest, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and the Diplomat.

This article first appeared in 2018 and is reprinted due to reader interest.

Image: Wikimedia Commons



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Job gains since the late 1980s in Canada have now been wiped out, latest CERB data suggests


The COVID-19 pandemic has effectively wiped out job gains made in the Canadian economy since October 1986, if the number of Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) claims is used as a proxy for the unemployment rate, according to an analysis of Statistics Canada data by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). 

Publicly available data from Service Canada and the Canada Revenue Agency show more than 7.1 million unique applicants have filed for the $2,000 monthly benefit since applications opened on April 6.

If an assumption is made that everyone receiving CERB is currently unemployed, that means the number of employed has dramatically plunged to a 34-year low of 12.1 million, given that there were roughly 19.2 million employed prior to the pandemic-induced economic shutdown that began in the third week of March.

The last time there were so few people employed was in October 1986.


A cyclist rides past graffiti stating “People Over Profit No Jobs = No Rent in Toronto during the Covid 19 pandemic. More than 7.1 million Canadian residents have applied for the $2,000 monthly Canada Employment Response Benefit since April 6.

Peter J Thompson/National Post

The complicating factor, however, is that CERB benefits were expanded in mid-April to include the underemployed and those earning less than $1,000 in a four-week period. Such workers are not traditionally included when calculating the unemployment rate.

It is, therefore, plausible that the number of CERB applications — despite being an indicator of how many Canadians are in dire financial straits due to the pandemic — will always be higher than the actual rate of unemployment. 

But CCPA senior economist David Macdonald, who crunched the numbers, said that those who are underemployed have probably not yet had a huge impact on CERB applications, because the program’s expansion did not take place until April 15.

The government said that it has paid $22.4 billion in CERB benefits as of Thursday. The program has a budget of $24 billion, which is supposed to last for 16 weeks.

Job creation in Canada had been steadily climbing since the late 1980s, with slight dips between 1990 and 1994 and again during the 2008-09 recession. But even in the depths of the financial crisis, the number of employed Canadians only declined by roughly 425,000 Statistics Canada data showed.

Canada’s official unemployment rate now stands at 7.8 per cent, an increase of 2.2 per cent since February, but that figure was calculated after just the first two weeks of the pandemic, before anyone was even able to apply for CERB.

“We are going to see a very large reduction in employment in the next round of labour data in May,” said Parisa Mahboubi, an economist at the C.D. Howe Institute. “One thing to also keep in mind is that earlier on in this crisis, we saw mass layoffs in the private sector, but we are now starting to see layoffs in the public sector as well which has not been reflected in the data.” 

South of the border, at least 26 million Americans, or 15 per cent of the workforce, have applied for unemployment benefits in the past five weeks, erasing all job gains made since the 2008-09 recession.

U.S. Department of Labor data showed that approximately 22 million jobs had been created since 2010, before the country’s economy came to an abrupt halt in March.

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