Safer air for school streets

ClairCity is busy analysing policy ideas around the world that aim to reduce air pollution and improve the lives of urban residents. In this blog, we take a look at school-focused initiatives in the UK.

Children are particularly vulnerable to air pollution – a study in London found that children living in more polluted areas had on average 5% less lung capacity. Breathing polluted air increases the frequency and severity of asthma attacks, and new evidence is suggesting there might be links to reduced brain development. Over a child’s lifetime, being exposed to air pollution also means they are more likely to suffer a heart attack, stroke and other cardiovascular problems.

What works to protect children?

Schools, as the place that children spend much of their time, are a key location to reduce air pollution.

The UK is not breaking new ground in this matter – in our partner city of Amsterdam, regulation already means that primary schools must be located at least 50m from a main road and 300m from a dual carriageway or motorway. Furthermore, more than 60% of Dutch children under the age of 12 walk or cycle to school. However, local authorities in the UK are starting to play catch-up by addressing traffic around schools and sustainable school travel.

Many schools across the UK are involved in campaigns to get families to switch engines off or encourage families to walk, cycle, take public transport or scoot to school to reduce the number of car journeys, improve road safety and improve the air quality around the school at crucial drop off and pick up times.

Research shows that thinking carefully about the distance families are travelling, and that ensuring local roads, parks and pavements give safe and attractive routes are crucial for the success of these interventions. Providing role models of “low polluting” behaviours and helping families feel confident with the skills and materials they need (apps that may help to find nicer walking routes, how to pump up bike tires…) are also important to guarantee that positive changes stick.

School Streets – the future?

Taking this a step further, School Streets initiatives restrict traffic from accessing the roads around schools at the start and end of the school day. This can include permanent or temporary road closures or restrictions on vehicles accessing key locations, obliging families to park further away or find alternative modes of transport. Councils in Edinburgh, Solihull and several London boroughs are already running School Streets programmes, with other cities and local authorities still considering the idea.

As School Streets involves changes to traffic management, council involvement is crucial. In the cities where School Streets are already running, the councils are using Experimental Traffic Management/Regulation Orders. This means they can test restrictions and incorporate feedback from the community, monitoring the impact on local traffic flows and residents.

School Streets can work for some locations, but within the existing schemes there are also limitations to its rollout. Hackney Council have released a “toolkit for professionals” showing details of their approach. Schools could not participate if they were on “traffic sensitive roads”, main roads or bus routes. Inevitably, this reduces the possibilities for schools where air pollution and traffic are more likely to be an issue, precisely because they are located on major transport routes.

The schemes usually include exemptions, for example for blue badge holders (people with disabilities), residents or businesses within the restricted area, and potentially utilities vehicles. Inevitably, the more exemptions there are, the smaller the difference that a School Streets zone will make, but this is also a balance between the requirements of other road users. There is also a cost involved: changing road signage or layout, and then through enforcement, whether through cameras or patrols.

Overall it is clear, children cannot protect themselves from air pollution and need families, schools, neighbourhoods, local authorities and road agencies to work together. Collaboration is key to ensuring a future for children with clean air.

Corra Boushel, UWE Bristol