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.