‘Excess commuting’ to school

I was fortunate to receive a small research grant from the British Academy to undertake some preliminary work looking at the relationship between residential housing markets and travel to school.

In the course of preparing some of the data for analysis I hope to report on in a forthcoming paper at the UK Planning Research Conference, I began using the network analysis capabilities of a GIS to examine, using anonymous data on postcodes, where children in Sheffield went to school.

Borrowing on the concept of ‘excess commuting’, it was interesting to see how far the actual pattern of school trips in the city deviated from what might be termed the ‘optimal’ pattern of trips that would arise if every pupil went to his or her nearest school. (Of course, this is only an artificial optimality in that it ignores the way that trips to school need to fit into the daily routines of parents, decisions about school ‘quality’, decisions about faith schools, etc.)

Sheffield, in line with most English education authorities, uses a system of catchment areas which notionally assigns children to schools on the basis of home address. There are some flexibilities which mean that catchment areas are not always observed and, indeed, it is the general thrust of policy to increase the choices that parents can make about the children’s schooling.

The choice agenda is a significant project that lies at the heart of political and societal reforms in recent years and in years to come. But it is interesting to observe that in many cases, be it choice in the hospitals we use, the supermarkets we visit, or the schools we might send our children to, there explicit tradeoffs that need to be made, noticeably in terms of travel time and accessibility. Given that there are huge and well founded concerns about the environmental costs of wasteful travel and the economic costs of congestion, the proponents of choice need to be at least cognisant of the travel implications of the agenda they pursue.

A few basic results astounded me.

  • Fewer than half of primary school pupils in Sheffield actually go to the school that is nearest to them (in terms of the transport network).  (Unsurprisingly, pupils that walk or bike to school are more likely to go to the school nearest to them.)
  • Despite higher development densities, those pupils living in so-called ‘city living’ types of neighbourhood are the least likely to go to the nearest school. This might say something about the paucity of schools in general in central areas.
  • In total, Sheffield’s primary school pupils travel around 116,000 kilometres to and from school each day. About 43% of journeys are by private car ; a similar proportion of journeys are walking trips.
  • If all pupils went to their nearest school, the total travel distance would be around 61,000 kilometers.  There is therefore ‘excess commuting’ of around 55,000 kilometres a day – an excess of 90% – in Sheffield. That is only primary school pupils.
  • Taking mode of transport into account and using the emissions estimates provided by the Guardian, the excess commute of primary school children equates to approximately 2,000 kg of additional CO2 emissions in the city each school day.

These are simply some basic facts but the key point is that choice in public services has hidden costs that result from the spatial arrangement of homes, schools and workplaces (urban structure) and the commuting that arrangement gives rise to. It also raises some interesting questions about the housing market. Given the received wisdom (backed up by a few empirical studies) that school quality is capitalised into house prices, what impact will liberalisation of school choice have on housing markets? And if already fewer than half of children go to their nearest school will there be any real effect, and is the current house price premium justified or simply a market response to something imagined? Are the attempts to increase walking and cycling to school through improvements to urban design and urban form and through to engender behavioural change simply going to be ineffective in the face of the brute force of existing relations between home and school?

I hope that through further work I’ll be able to say a bit more about some of these questions. If anything I have realised how important it is to understand the housing market from the perspective of social policy or transport as well as simply thinking about it through the lens of housing and planning policy.

Thanks to Marc Schlossberg and Yizhao Yang for useful discussions to help frame the problem and for help with access to some relevant data. Thanks to Aidan While for pointers on carbon emissions data.



About Ed Ferrari

Ed Ferrari is a Lecturer in Town & Regional Planning at the University of Sheffield. Ed is the administrator of this blog.
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2 Responses to ‘Excess commuting’ to school

  1. Claire Thirlwall (@Thirlwall_Assoc) says:

    The school travel data is fascinating – I was hunting for an overlay that looked at correlation between house price and OFSTED data and came across your post.

    I suppose the only way to remove the excess commute would be the utopian situation for all schools to be of a standard/type that the parents in the immediate area would accept. It would be interesting to see if the excess commute is different in other countries.

    • Ed Ferrari says:

      Hi Claire

      Sorry for the delay in approving your post. After wading through the spam, finding a genuine post on the subject was a delight!

      I’ve still working on some of this material. If you PM me or send me an email I can send you some slides from a recent conference presentation I gave on the subject. Your are obsolutely right though that it is the quality distinction that explains a lot of school commuting behaviour. My results seems to indicate that it is the higher socio-economic groups and those that live in high price areas whose children tend to commute less to school. This is probably because they have the resources to get into good school areas and they prioritise this in their house purchase decisions. It doesn’t explain everything, of course – urban form also has an explanatory role among other, untested, factors – but it is interesting to see how those from poorer backgrounds/areas commute longer, presumably to be able to access ‘decent’ schools where resources allow. I have been working with some colleagues from the US and hope to be able to develop some comparables. In general I think the excess commutes looks similar (need more work on this though) but there’s a different spatial structure and structure of supply in schools, and comparison would need to factor this in. As far as I understand it, many US communities are much further along the line of consolidation into ‘super schools’ often on the urban periphery than we are in the UK.

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