Here’s why the UK should start closing school streets to traffic

The Big Pedal in action at St Richard Reynold’s Catholic College, London. Image: Sustrans.

How do we improve road safety near schools? How do we get children fitter, healthier and happier through being active? How do we increase the numbers of children walking, scooting and cycling to school? How do we stop children dying from invisible polluted air?

These questions are some of the thoughts that run through the minds of many parents, teachers and policy makers – and us at Sustrans – on a regular basis. There are many answers but perhaps the most important when talking about getting a happy, healthy child to school is to close streets directly outside schools at drop off and pick up times.

This is something that we are doing with 40 schools to launch our annual cycling, scooting and walking school kids competition ‘Big Pedal’ this week. It is the biggest event of its kind in the UK and this year a record number of over 2,200 schools are taking part.

Air pollution is linked to up to 36,000 premature deaths in the UK each year and more than 2,200 schools and nurseries are near to roads with damaging levels of motor emissions. As children’s lungs are still developing, roadside emissions make them particularly vulnerable. Public Health England has recognised this, calling for a targeted reduction in traffic emissions and increased access to and use of non-car traffic such as cycles.

‘School Streets’, the process of closing streets outside of schools at drop-off and pick-up times, is a great way of reducing children’s exposure to air pollution at the school gates and in the playground. Tailpipe pollution dissipates fast, which means distances of only a few metres can greatly reduce children’s exposure to pollutants. With no cars idling outside the gates and no congestion, the air is cleaner.


Car-free school streets reduce overall traffic

What School Streets also does is reduce traffic levels overall. In Edinburgh, where a pilot of school streets has been running across nine primary schools, the car ban has resulted in a vast drop in traffic levels. Interestingly, the traffic didn’t simply dissipate into surrounding streets, thereby just shifting the problem. Overall, only a third of traffic was displaced to surrounding roads. The other two thirds of car trips stopped altogether.

By closing streets outside a school you are not just reducing children’s exposure to pollutants: you are reducing road danger by removing children’s interaction with cars outside the school gates. Safer streets mean more parents are happier to let their child walk or cycle the school run. School streets effectively helps those parents who can to think differently about the school run and how their child could get to school by making other, more active, forms of travel more convenient and safer.

As part of the launch of Big Pedal Sustrans conducted a YouGov survey of 840 teachers across the UK and found that nearly two thirds (63 per cent) of teachers support car-free streets outside of schools. If this is the case, the logical question to ask is why there are not more school streets, outside of Hackney in London and other dotted pilots across the nation.

The answers are complex. In the same survey, 36 per cent of teachers stated they needed more support from parents and 27 per cent said they needed the backing of local authorities, who have the power to push school streets through. It can be hard to win parents over when car travel is often perceived as the most convenient option. Whilst local authorities can put in place school streets, their ability to enforce them varies across the UK, and the cost of putting them in place can be a prohibitive factor.

This is why Sustrans is calling on governments across the UK to actively support local authorities in rolling out school streets, particularly in England outside of London, where they don’t have the powers to enforce them. More widely large scale investment in walking and cycling infrastructure is needed to really offer families an alternative to the car. The small, localised action of closing streets outside schools to cars when rolled out across a nation really can make a difference to everyone’s health and wellbeing.

Rachel White is senior policy and political advisor at the transport charity Sustrans.

 
 
 
 

As EU funding is lost, “levelling up” needs investment, not just rhetoric

Oh, well. Image: Getty.

Regional inequality was the foundation of Boris Johnson’s election victory and has since become one of the main focuses of his government. However, the enthusiasm of ministers championing the “levelling up” agenda rings hollow when compared with their inertia in preparing a UK replacement for European structural funding. 

Local government, already bearing the brunt of severe funding cuts, relies on European funding to support projects that boost growth in struggling local economies and help people build skills and find secure work. Now that the UK has withdrawn its EU membership, councils’ concerns over how EU funds will be replaced from 2021 are becoming more pronounced.

Johnson’s government has committed to create a domestic structural funding programme, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), to replace the European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF). However, other than pledging that UKSPF will “reduce inequalities between communities”, it has offered few details on how funds will be allocated. A public consultation on UKSPF promised by May’s government in 2018 has yet to materialise.

The government’s continued silence on UKSPF is generating a growing sense of unease among councils, especially after the failure of successive governments to prioritise investment in regional development. Indeed, inequalities within the UK have been allowed to grow so much that the UK’s poorest region by EU standards (West Wales & the Valleys) has a GDP of 68 per cent of the average EU GDP, while the UK’s richest region (Inner London) has a GDP of 614 per cent of the EU average – an intra-national disparity that is unique in Europe. If the UK had remained a member of the EU, its number of ‘less developed’ regions in need of most structural funding support would have increased from two to five in 2021-27: South Yorkshire, Tees Valley & Durham and Lincolnshire joining Cornwall & Isles of Scilly and West Wales & the Valley. Ministers have not given guarantees that any region, whether ‘less developed’ or otherwise, will obtain the same amount of funding under UKSPF to which they would have been entitled under ESIF.


The government is reportedly contemplating changing the Treasury’s fiscal rules so public spending favours programmes that reduce regional inequalities as well as provide value for money, but this alone will not rebalance the economy. A shared prosperity fund like UKSPF has the potential to be the master key that unlocks inclusive growth throughout the country, particularly if it involves less bureaucracy than ESIF and aligns funding more effectively with the priorities of local people. 

In NLGN’s Community Commissioning report, we recommended that this funding should be devolved to communities directly to decide local priorities for the investment. By enabling community ownership of design and administration, the UK government would create an innovative domestic structural funding scheme that promotes inclusion in its process as well as its outcomes.

NLGN’s latest report, Cultivating Local Inclusive Growth: In Practice, highlights the range of policy levers and resources that councils can use to promote inclusive growth in their area. It demonstrates that, through collaboration with communities and cross-sector partners, councils are already doing sterling work to enhance economic and social inclusion. Their efforts could be further enhanced with a fund that learns lessons from ESIF’s successes and flaws: a UKSPF that is easier to access, designed and delivered by local communities, properly funded, and specifically targeted at promoting social and economic inclusion in regions that need it most. “Getting Brexit done” was meant to free up the government’s time to focus once more on pressing domestic priorities. “Getting inclusive growth done” should be at the top of any new to-do list.

Charlotte Morgan is senior researcher at the New Local Government Network.