The UK government announced that primary schools could start to reopen (to limited year groups) from 1 June and anticipates that all primary year groups can return a month before the summer holidays start. For some time, schools will have been planning how they can reopen safely to pupils – setting out classrooms to ensure children can socially distance, carefully managing playtimes to reduce the opportunity for pupils to congregate, and staggering lunchtimes to allow children to safely sit apart.
But what about the possible implications and impacts of schools reopening on travel to school? Public policy over many years has focused on encouraging sustainable and active travel to school – encouraging walking/scooting and cycling to address inactivity and child obesity issues, help tackle poor air quality around schools, and address congestion and associated safety issues at the school gate.
Surveys during the lockdown hint at people’s unwillingness to return to public transport because of concerns about crowding and the difficulty of achieving social distancing; indeed, the government is now advising people to avoid using public transport. One concern is that if parents start to drive to work this could lead to an increase in car use for the journey to school as they drop off their children on the way. The impact of this on schools will be huge – with additional congestion around schools and associated negative impacts on safety and air quality.
Pre-COVID, school run traffic typically accounted for one-fifth of peak time vehicles on the road; with more people driving to work as the lockdown eases it will be even more important to remove short, local school travel journeys from the network.
Schools will need to:
Have sufficient space at school site to store pupils’ bikes safely.
Local authorities have an important role in:
Families are walking and cycling together more, encouraged by much quieter roads (retailers have reported significant increases in bike purchases and there has been a boost in the take up of cycle to work schemes).
More people than ever before are working from home and will be discovering the additional time that this creates in their working day. These things could mean that parents are more willing and able to cycle or walk to school with their children.
Walking and cycling to school is not issue-free and it won’t just happen by itself – parents are looking to schools for reassurance that back to school plans have been properly thought through and want straightforward guidance about what to do and how to do it safely. Schools and local authorities will need to work together to help guide parents and pupils to make good, safe travel choices.
Helen Bonner is Principal Consultant at Steer. She specialises in travel behaviour change, working to promote walking, cycling and public transport use. Helen has worked with schools and authorities across the UK to promote active travel to school, review and plan school bus services, and help embed cycle training programmes.
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