Thursday 8 October, Clean Air Day 2020. College Road, Whalley Range, Manchester.
Four road signs, half a dozen people in high viz vests, a tray of empty tea cups. Cycles, scooters, buggies. Some kids skipping down the middle of the road and up to the school gates, others slowing down, almost to a pause, drinking in the clean air and relishing the peace and quiet. Three friends, kicking leaves and chatting as they stroll along the pavement. An overwhelming feeling of calm and space. Lots of space.
Not my usual experience of school drop-off. The tension at the school entrance during peak drop-off times appeared to just evaporate, along with the cars and the exhaust fumes.
I stood by one of the road signs and chatted to the deputy head. ‘It’s great’ he said. I asked if he’d like it to always be like this. His eyes lit up ‘Do you think that is possible?’ A dad gave us a grin and a thumbs up as he walked past with his two children. There were lots of thankyous from people passing. The rain fell a little harder. It really didn’t matter. A resident slowly pulled out of their driveway, and crawled along the road, a marshal at their side. Another thankyou. No fuss. A couple of residents came and chatted from a distance. They were very supportive but suggested a little more notice next time would be helpful. Next time. It was assumed there would be a next time. Why wouldn’t you?
Anxiety briefly arrived in the shape of a huge lorry with a crane on its back. It looked completely oversized on the residential street. The driver saw the road signs and came to a stop. This could be tricky I thought. But no. ‘What a great idea’ he gushed, and he turned right instead of left.
At 9.15am we took the signs off the road and 45 minutes after the vests went on they came off. Teachers, parents, carers, children, residents, passers-by, went about their days with a smile. Happier, healthier, safer.
I’ve been advocating for school streets for a couple of years now, after ten years looking for a solution to the congestion and danger we see too often outside schools at drop-off and pick-up times. I’ve tried everything: walking buses, bike buses, school assemblies, letters home, fundraising for bike racks, free bike repairs, cycle training and events, meetings, more meetings. Lots of meetings. I even trained as a cycling instructor, setting up a community bike project to help increase access to bikes and cycle training and promote more of a cycling culture in the neighbourhood.
All of this has seen an increase in the number of families going to school on foot or by bike, so attitudes are slowly shifting. But I’m convinced that further progress will be difficult without a commitment to creating a car-free zone around the school.
In my various roles I’ve witnessed the many benefits to such a scheme. As a Chair of Governors I’m relieved to see a reduced risk of injury on the roads – a major safeguarding concern for all schools – and the removal of parking and congestion issues which cause anxiety and sometimes conflict for school staff and parents. As a parent I feel happier about my son walking to school on his own and having more independence. As a resident I love the clean air and the peace a lack of cars brings.
Overall school streets mean increased safety, improved air quality, a more active journey to school, a time to play and a more relaxed start to the day.
And this isn’t just for the benefit of schools but for every member of the communities they are part of. As a Councillor I see opportunities to reach our Climate Change and Clean Air targets, which would see healthier, more resilient neighbourhoods, ones where our residents have greater equity and enjoy a greener, cleaner, safer life.
I’d like to see more communities working together towards safer school streets, as I know it’s something that is achievable with cooperation. Our Clean Air Day couldn’t have happened without the support of the school leadership team, the school community, the local residents and the council. If you can get those parties on board – and it’s in their interests to be – then you can start working to make the streets safer outside your school.
How much you can do will depend on the area you live in, as local circumstances vary, but in most cases traffic restrictions will apply for just 30-60 minutes at the start and end of the school day. In some areas of London and Wales they’re able to restrict road access using ANPR cameras, but you can still do it without that technology. Other councils – like ours – allow the use of bollards or barriers to temporarily block the usual traffic together with signs declaring the street a walking-and-cycling-only zone. Blue badge holders and local residents are allowed access, but through traffic is rerouted by friendly parents and staff, clad in smiles and luminous yellow.
It worked for us, it can work for you too.
If you’d like to know more about School Streets and how you can organise a similar scheme in your community, the links below have all the information you need…
How does a school street differ from a school play street?
School play streets are an adaptation of the play street model; short temporary road closures outside a school gate at the start and end of the school day, with volunteer stewards looking after the closure points. School play streets can build support for permanent school streets.
How to organise a school street?
You need to get the school leadership team, school community, local residents and the council on board.
Greater Manchester examples and views
GM School Streets Report, Sustrans, June 2020
Learning from elsewhere