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.

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.