Optimised Walking School-bus Planning

Over the past 4 decades, there has been a large modal shift from walking to school to accompanying children by car in England.  

Many studies have demonstrated the social, environmental, health, and psychological benefits associated with children’s active travel, such as walking or cycling, to school.  

To address these concerns and promote healthier habits, the UK Government has set a target to raise the percentage of children aged 5 to 10 who usually walk to school in England from 49% in 2014 to 55% by 2025. However, National Travel Survey in 2019 recorded the lowest-ever percentage of primary school children walking to school at 46%.  

To contribute to the national target, the aim of the OptiWaSP (Optimised Walking Schoolbus Planning) project is to develop planning tools to enable schools, communities, and local authorities to organize and operate a Walking School Bus (WSB): a program where children walk to school in groups using planned routes and pick up spots, with each group lead by an adult.  

The overall project will be conducted in three universities, Leeds, Lancaster and the West of England (UWE), with additional collaboration from Glasgow.  

In the first strand of work (WP1), operational research specialists at Lancaster are developing tools for determining WSB routes and stops considering multiple objectives, e.g., distance, time, safety, emissions exposure.  

In WP2, mathematical modelling specialists at Leeds are developing new methods for predicting the uptake of such modes, the detailed interaction of traffic and pedestrians in terms of emissions exposure, and the design of control measures to alleviate impacts on WSB users.  

In WP3, UWE and Glasgow will work with stakeholders and practitioners to determine the best avenue for practical application of the methods and models developed in WP1/WP2, and to utilise as much as possible knowledge and experience from existing schemes to promote walking to school.  

Considering the University of Leeds contribution in more detail, there are three main elements to the proposed research.  

Firstly, motivated by the intention develop a ‘virtuous cycle’, whereby good experiences of some parents with the WSB encourage others to consider it, we will develop a novel econometric model to predict the mode choice preference of school-going children (from the parents’ perspective) considering the factors associated with the alternative available modes (e.g., travel time, trip distance, safety, air quality) and taking account of parents’ psychological (habit, intention, subjective norm) and behavioural aspects (satisfaction, experience with current facilities, communication, and knowledge sharing).  

Secondly, we will develop a detailed local area network model of pedestrians and vehicles, to understand and predict the interactions between the WSB and road traffic, both in terms of anticipated modal share and in terms of exposure to traffic conditions (e.g., speed, safety, emissions in the vicinity of the school), and to design local control measures (e.g., speed controls, traffic signals, parking exclusions). This will be also used to proactively inform the WP1 optimizer, in terms of promoting new WSB routes/stops for potential new users.  

Thirdly, the local area network model will be embedded within a wider area traffic network model, in order to design traffic control measures to benefit the WSB, i.e. these measures will be designed in conjunction with the WSB routes, in order to encourage re-routing or modal shift of non-school traffic, as well as to evaluate actions to reduce traffic volumes close to the school (in the same spirit as the existing School Streets programme and/or the banning of more polluting vehicles). 


The OptiWaSP project is well-aligned with four of the UK government’s targeted policies.  

Firstly, WSBs are clearly a part of the walking and cycling strategy, which has the objective to increase walking to school from 49% in 2014 to 55% by 2025.  

Secondly, by encouraging active travel, it connects to the childhood obesity plan, which recommends 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity daily for children and youths.  

Thirdly, by promoting more sustainable modes it aligns with the goal of achieving net zero CO2 emissions by 2050. Fourthly, by reducing the dependence on car travel for school-trips, it prepares the population for the goal of phasing out the sale of new combustion engine cars by 2030. 

Besides, it will have academic impacts in bringing together research across different research fields (mathematics, urban transport planning, behavioural sciences, and social policy), and thereby promote multi-disciplinary working to other academics, as well as bringing to greater prominence research into operational planning of school travel, which has had relatively little attention paid to it.  

Finally, the planned collaboration with practitioners - city councils, school authorities, schools and active travel NGOs - will both help to ensure the most appropriate design and best take-up of the research, and as a result will enhance the communication and reduce the gap between academics and professionals.