To Rethink the School Run, Get Rid of the Cars

To Rethink the School Run, Get Rid of the Cars

December 4, 2020

Just before 3 p.m. on weekdays, a subtle change unfolds on Lowden Road in south London. The street grows quiet as parents start to wander in from different directions, bound for the entrances of Jessop Primary School. Many walk in the middle of the road, prams in tow; others roll up on bicycles. Car traffic all but disappears.

Then, the gates open. Out of the school come children, running out to meet their carers on scooters, cycles or their own two feet. The division between curb and street practically becomes non-existent. One mother, who arrives by bike to pick up her young daughter, rides by and tells me: “I used to get a taxi or Zipcar, but I can’t come here with those so now I just cycle. It’s made a big difference.”

Jessop Primary School is home to a “School Street,” one of the latest interventions in the U.K. to promote walking and cycling among both kids and adults. In the morning and afternoon rush, through-traffic on roads in front of participating schools is effectively halted through the use of either cameras or barriers staffed by volunteers. (Access is allowed to residents, delivery and emergency vehicles, buses and those with mobility issues.) The idea is to give children and parents the space to safely get to and from school — which, in the Covid-19 era, has taken on a whole new meaning.

School Streetspredate the pandemic — the first came to London in 2017. But they’ve proliferated dramatically nationwide in recent months, as consecutive rounds of “active travel” funding from Westminster has allowed local councils — as here, in the borough of Lambeth — to roll out dozens of “emergency” setups at a breakneck pace. London alone is seeing well over 400 new School Streets go in. Together, the schemes present perhaps the most substantive change to how children get to school here in generations.

Mirroring the U.S., the percentage of children walking or cycling to school in the U.K. plummeted in recent decades, bolstered by a longstanding legal ban on play in the streets. According to Cycling UK statistics, a major advocacy group, only around 2% of children ages 5 to 10 bike to school, and 4% ages 11 to 16. The numbers are so low that “year-to-year fluctuations should be viewed with some caution.” (Compare that to 40% for Dutch children.) In the U.S.,about 10% of kids walk or bike to school, a share that has fallen dramatically since the 1970s; more than half are shuttled to and from school in private vehicles, and about a third take school buses. 

The shift to private vehicles over the years is both a traffic congestionand pedestrian safety problem: Data from Transport for London (TfL) shows that the school run makes up about a quarter of weekday traffic, although the average journey is less than one kilometer. Surveys by Sustrans, an active travel charity based in the U.K., found that nearly half of parents said their child had a “near miss” traffic accident going to and from school. A 2018 government report estimated that 16 children ages 16 and under are either fatally hit or seriously injured during the morning and afternoon school runs each week, with higher figures later in the day.

School-related traffic is also linked to a burgeoning public health crisis, says Councillor Claire Holland, Lambeth’s Sustainable Transport, Environment and Clean Air representative. Nearly 9,500 lives are lost to premature toxic air-related conditions in London each year, she says, and research shows that damage to a child or newborn’s lungs can have far-reaching consequences. Schools especially find themselves in the crosshairs of air pollution.

Underlying that is a youth obesity crisis, with lack of exercise cited as a main cause.  Students living in smaller flats have less space to get active.

“It’s about getting children to walk or scoot or cycle or wheelchair to school and feel safe to do that, and also encouraged to do so,” Holland tells me. “And it’s about having a nice environment to do that.”

In a study of school street closures in multiple countries, researchers at Edinburgh Napier University found the displacement of traffic elsewhere to be minimal, and that active travel levels increased at each school studied. In Lambeth, where I live, Jessop Primary School was an early experiment, launching in April 2019. Since the Covid-19 outbreak, Lambeth has committed to installing another 19 School Streets, with many already in motion. Still new, their impact is seen in stories and photos on Twitter. The Mayor’s Office also plans to monitor air quality at 18 schools citywide.

Holland says that the program has helped in other ways, too, by gently nudging more local residents to consider alternatives to driving. “If the school gets the kids doing it, then that peer pressure from the kids to the parents works as well,” Holland says. “Just chatting at that school gate, looking at what other people are doing, realizing that other people are walking and scooting to school. Hopefully it will have more people doing it.” 

By doing so, advocates hope to change the public perception of urban cycling in the U.K. to include more children and  families of all backgrounds, rather than solely the “Lycra louts” who tend to dominate the bike scene. 

Efforts to ban cars in front of schools in the U.S. have not been universally welcomed — in January, Streetsblog reported on New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio’s resistance to the idea. But in the U.K, the School Street program has proved less controversial than another car-taming technique  — “low-traffic neighborhoods,” which seek to cut “rat-running” of cars through residential streets by banning non-local drivers. Emergency service operators have voiced support, and parents and school administration see the measures as largely positive, which, Holland says, is crucial for buy-in. (“The lack of noise is telling,” she adds.) The street closures face few funding issues: Automated plate number recognition cameras are relatively cheap, and many street closures are enforced only by volunteers.

Catherine Kenyon is one of those willing parents. In early November, a School Street opened in front of her children’s school in the borough of Haringey, in north London. Watching children show up on bikes and scooters was “joyful,” she later posted on Twitter. She chatted about other local initiatives with parents and met the headmaster’s dog. 

In a follow-up interview, Kenyon told me that conversations around a School Street first started with Haringey area parents a year and a half ago. Then this past October, two children were struck and injured by cars in front of the school; thankfully, both instances were non-fatal. “There wasn’t any space for social distancing on the pavement,” Kenyon says. “The incident where the child was hit, there were cars parked where they shouldn’t have been, and the child walked out and wasn’t expecting a car, and got clipped by it.”

Coupled with the growing demands for social distancing, the injuries triggered traffic safety talks with the council, which installed planters on the residential street behind the school in a matter of weeks and gave parents permission to oversee a traffic barrier. Kenyon says the impact of the School Street is being monitored, but anecdotally it’s made waves. “Just suddenly seeing that space, it’s much more relaxed, and people are able to space out, walk out, and scoot and cycle,” she said. 

Parents are not stopping there. The School Street, Kenyon says, is “a really important first step that gets people talking about their streetspace,” but the school is now working to push for a wider intervention beyond its backyard. That might mean establishing a low-traffic neighborhood, Kenyon says, or creating “community cycle lanes” for children on quieter routes. 

To do that, parents and teachers are exploring a radical concept: asking the children for planning input. “We did an exercise a couple of months ago, and we just brought in a map and asked kids to put Post-its on bits that they liked in the community, and bits that they found polluted and a bit scary,” says Kenyon. “It was really enlightening.” Tricky crossings and spots where parents didn’t feel comfortable letting their children travel independently were pinpointed.

A School Street should be seen as a building block, Holland says, one which can be adjusted and improved upon as demand increases or changes. At Jessop Primary School, for example, a “zebra crossing” was added to the main road nearby. On some occasions, schools aren’t interested in participating: For those located on a main road, for example, closing the street to through-traffic becomes near impossible. Currently, Lambeth’s transport planners are conducting an audit of the remaining schools to see if other measures can be implemented, likeadding traffic calming designs, installing cycle parking, considering back routes or launching bike loan schemes and training. 

The transformation of the area into a bike and pedestrian zone isn’t complete: Just outside of the pedestrian area, for example, a handful of parents still idle in their cars, waiting for their children to come out. 

But for parents like Catherine Kenyon, School Streets have already succeeded in changing the conversation around the school run. After years of navigating traffic-choked streets, parents are thinking and talking about doing things differently. 

“It’s very much a first step for the school. We need lots more things,” she says. “But I think showing people that it was possible, that it wasn’t controversial, and it’s just made that particular area much more people-friendly, that’s a really good thing. I hope we can build on it.”

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