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.

 
 
 
 

“You don’t look like a train buff”: on sexism in the trainspotting community

A female guard on London’s former Metropolitan Railway. Image: Getty.

I am a railway enthusiast. I like looking at trains, I like travelling by train and I like the quirks of the vast number of different train units, transit maps and train operating companies.

I get goosebumps standing on a platform watching my train approach, eyeballing the names of the destinations on the dot matrix display over and over again, straining to hear the tinny departure announcements on the tannoy.  I’m fortunate enough to work on the site of a former railway station that not only houses beautiful old goods sheds, but still has an active railway line running alongside it. You can imagine my colleagues’ elation as I exclaim: “Wow! Look at that one!” for the sixth time that day, as another brilliantly gaudy freight train trundles past.

I am also a woman in my twenties. A few weeks my request to join a railway-related Facebook group was declined because I – and I quote here – “don’t look like a train buff”.

After posting about this exchange on Twitter, my outrage was widely shared. “They should be thrilled to have you!” said one. “What does a train buff look like?!” many others asked.

The answer, of course, is a middle-aged white man with an anorak and notebook. Supposedly, anyway. That’s the ancient stereotype of a “trainspotter”, which sadly shows no sign of waning.

I’m not alone in feeling marginalised in the railway community. Sarah, a railway enthusiast from Bournemouth, says she is used to funny looks when she tells people that she is not only into trains, but an engineer.

She speaks of her annoyance at seeing a poster bearing the phrase: “Beware Rail Enthusiasts Disease: Highly Infectious To Males Of All Ages”. “That did bug me,” she says, “because women can enjoy trains just as much as men.”


Vicki Pipe is best known as being one half of the YouTube sensation All The Stations, which saw her and her partner Geoff Marshall spend 2017 visiting every railway station in Great Britain.

“During our 2017 adventure I was often asked ‘How did your boyfriend persuade you to come along?’” she says. “I think some found it unusual that a woman might be independently interested or excited enough about the railways to spend sixteen weeks travelling to every station on the network.”

Pipe, who earlier this year travelled to all the stations in Ireland and Northern Ireland, is passionate about changing the way in which people think of the railways, including the perception of women in the industry.

“For me it’s the people that make the railways such an exciting place to explore – and many of these are women,” she explains. “Women have historically and continue to play an important part in the railway industry – throughout our journey we met female train drivers, conductors, station staff, signallers and engineers. I feel it is important that more female voices are heard so that women of the future recognise the railways as a place they too can be part of.”

Despite the progress being made, it’s clear there is still a long way to go in challenging stereotypes and proving that girls can like trains, too.

I’m appalled that in 2019 our life choices are still subjected to critique. This is why I want to encourage women to embrace their interests and aspirations – however “nerdy”, or unusual, or untraditionally “female” they may be – and to speak up for things that I was worried to speak about for so long.

We might not change the world by doing so but, one by one, we’ll let others know that we’ll do what we want – because we can.