It’s great when a good thing catches on. School Streets, where the road outside a school is closed to traffic at drop off and pick up times, are an excellent example. First introduced to England in 2018, there are now over 500 in London, and hundreds around the rest of the country. In the world of highway authorities, that’s extremely fast-moving.
Research shows that a School Street not only benefits the targeted school, but also the entire community around that school, as well as nearby local schools that may not be able to implement their own school street.
For those reasons we at Mums for Lungs think councils should not hesitate, and should introduce as many as possible as quickly as possible.
Impact of pollution on children
First, it might be helpful to understand the situation around many of the 24,000 plus schools in England. According to research by King's College London,1 school children are exposed to five times more air pollution on the school run than any other time.
Research2 in 2021, showed that a quarter of all schools were in areas with levels of pollution higher than what the World Health Organisation deems safe. Those guidelines have since been tightened, meaning many more schools are now in areas where air pollution targets are exceeded.
In addition to this, we know that air pollution affects children more than grown ups. This is because they breathe more frequently and more deeply than adults, they are closer to the emissions, and their lungs are still developing. Research3 shows that children who grow up 50m from a main road can have lungs stunted by up to 14%.
Fortunately, School Streets go some way to mitigate these terrible statistics. Research4 shows they reduce traffic as well as air pollution by 23%5 . This is obviously reason enough to campaign for them, but we believe their impact is even bigger. Why? Here are a few reasons.
The rush hour and school run
According to research6 the school run accounts for 25% of morning peak traffic. By making it difficult to drive to, or park around a school, it becomes less convenient to drive that journey and research7 shows that traffic falls on school streets and surrounding roads. This traffic reduction benefits everyone. Parents are more able to walk or cycle to school with less traffic around, making it more likely that the whole family hits their active travel goals.
A reduction in traffic outside the school means the teachers don’t have to manage the stressful mayhem of angry parents, honking horns and bewildered children - a common occurrence outside the school gates.
And residents who live around the school also benefit. Even when there is some displacement of traffic, research8 finds that it is not as significant as the original problem and can be managed.
Not all schools equal when it comes to traffic
Catchment schools rely on pupils coming from nearby, and if that’s in an urban area, it is usually within easy walking distance. However, non-catchment schools - often independent or faith schools that don’t have a distance criteria - generally have higher driving rates.
Department for Transport research9 from 2014 shows that the further a child travels to school, the more likely that journey is to be driven, with 75% of school journeys under a mile being walked, compared to 75% of journeys between 2-5 miles being driven.
HomeRun10 an app that measures 3.8 million school journeys a year, has data that shows that the average journey to an urban non-catchment primary school is 4.5 miles, compared with 1.2 miles of a catchment school.
Because of this, we think councils should not be reluctant to give non-catchment schools School Streets, as a reduction in driving rates and a more sustainable school run will not only benefit those schools, but also the communities and schools around them.
And it doesn’t need to cost councils…
Our new research11 shows that using Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras to enforce School Streets means they self-fund before their first year is out.
From the 11 London boroughs with sufficient data to analyse, we found out that setting up a School Street with a multi-camera ANPR scheme costs on average £56,375 (around £20,000 for a single-camera scheme) and returns £63,113 per year in penalty enforcement notices (on average). This money can be used on measures to reduce air pollution and road danger at schools that can’t implement a school street.
People love them
This is the one traffic reduction measure that is almost universally popular. According to research12 by the Mayor of London, 77% of parents and carers support School Streets being kept.
Another survey13 by Transport for London said 81% of people whose school had a School Street wanted to keep it, and a survey14 by charity Sustrans found that residents on and around a School Street felt that the road was much safer with a School Street. These perceptions are overwhelmingly positive. For many people a School Street is the first time they see a low-car environment, and they find that they like it.
There are more than 24,000 schools in England, so we’ve only just touched the surface of what can be done. School Streets mean less traffic, less road danger, less pollution and a better start to everyone’s day.
Claire McDonald is schools lead at Mums For Lungs, a grassroots campaign organisation, concerned about the impact of air pollution on children’s health
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