The school run: Campaigners call for road closures

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: J Bewley/Sustrans

Closing roads around schools to motor traffic during drop-off and pick-up times can reduce pollution and encourage students to walk, scoot or cycle without having a significant impact on surrounding streets.

Local authorities are being asked to take the idea seriously after research found that impact on safety in surrounding roads or traffic displacement was not significant.

With six in 10 students saying there are too many cars and too much pollution around their schools, campaigners are urging more be done to encourage cycling and walking.

Currently, only two per cent of UK pupils aged six to 15 bike to school, yet new research from YouGov involving 1,300 children shows that 14 per cent would like to; a further two per cent scoot to school, but 10 per cent would like to.

Campaigners are using this year’s Bike to School Week (September 27 to October 1) to urge local authorities and schools to act, including via so called “School Streets” initiatives.

These initiatives see roads around schools closed to motor traffic at drop-off and pick-up times. The aim is to reduce the overall levels of road traffic across school street closures and neighbouring streets.

A research review last year (Davies, 2020) found consistent evidence that “traffic displacement does not cause road safety issues of any significance and that mitigating measures, where needed, have been applied successfully”. These mitigating measures include pedestrian crossings and “Park and Stride” schemes to help improve safety on surrounding roads.

The research includes results from pilot schemes in Edinburgh in 2016 involving 10 such street closures. It found that vehicle numbers reduced by 3,179 on the school streets in question and increased by only 920 on surrounding streets over the same period.

The report adds: “A key lesson learned from the pilots was the need for infrastructure provision: ensuring peripheral streets can accommodate displaced traffic movements and contain appropriate parking capacity; that peripheral streets can safely enable new 'Park and 'Stride' movements via appropriate footways and crossing points; and sufficient space and visibility options for positioning signs (entry, and potentially internal repeater signs).”

The research also found that the closures lead to increased “active travel levels” and were supported by parents and neighbouring residents.

Report author, Dr Adrian Davis, professor of transport and health at Edinburgh Napier University, said: “It is noteworthy that such a simple intervention can have really positive impacts in terms of increasing children physical activity levels and with this the associated improvements in wellbeing. School street closures looks to be a win-win for residents, schools and children and their families.”

Air pollution from car fumes and tyre particles contributes to 40,000 premature deaths a year according to a report from the Royal College of Physicians (RCP, 2016) which highlighted poor air quality around schools as a real concern for children.

Other research earlier this year found that more than 3.4 million UK children go to schools in areas where air pollution levels are above World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended limits.

This study, published to coincide with Clean Air Day in June, found that 27 per cent of UK schools – which equates to 7,852 nursery, primary, secondary and sixth form settings – are in high pollution areas. All but 160 of these schools are in England.

Meanwhile, the Bike to School Week YouGov poll found that 57 per cent of the respondents described the environment around their school as having too many cars, while 49 per cent said they were worried about air pollution near their school.

Forty per cent said that the best way to bring down levels of air pollution near their schools is for more people to walk, cycle or scoot to school.

Another case study in Dr Davies’ study focused on the Healthy School Streets programme, which has been running in Camden, London, since 2016. One trial scheme in Camden reported traffic reduction on surrounding roads of 13 per cent, while another reported a 43 per cent drop in driven trips to school.

In Camden, the local authority assesses streets outside schools “which can reasonably be closed to motor traffic during school opening and closing times, without moving too much traffic elsewhere”. Streets are closed by signage with restrictions enforced either by bollards raised and lowered by school staff or by using automatic number plate recognition cameras.

At the same time, Camden works with schools to offer pedestrian and cycle training, events to encourage walking and cycling, support for schools to achieve an accreditation on the Sustainable Travel: Active Responsible Safe project (Transport for London’s school travel planning initiative).

Run by Sustrans and the Bikeability Trust, Bike to School Week promotes the benefits of walking, cycling, and scooting to and from school, offering curriculum-linked resources and guidance.

Xavier Brice, CEO at Sustrans, said: “We must make it easier, safer and more enjoyable for children to walk, cycle, or scoot to school. Not only does it improve their health and wellbeing, build connections with others and foster a sense of community, it also helps to reduce air pollution and carbon emissions, further benefiting their health, and the environment in which they live.

“It is a sad fact that so many children find their daily journey to school unpleasant because of congestion and air pollution. It’s therefore vital that we make our streets accessible to all and pleasant to be in, working together to stop the public spaces around our schools being dominated by vehicles.”

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