The creation of car-free school streets would be a huge help in combating the high levels of air pollution children experience, writes Siobhan Baillie
For all the immeasurable disruption lockdown is causing to children’s lives, there is a silver lining for their health. With school attendance substantially reduced, children are less exposed to the high levels of air pollution that characterise the school run.
In normal times, levels of pollution can be as much as five times higher when travelling to school than while at school. It is not just a big town or city problem either. In rural constituencies like mine, the volume of traffic can be even greater as children are driven in from a wider geographical area to converge near the school gates. Most people who drive do so because public transport alternatives are not always available.
Children are especially vulnerable to the impacts of air pollution. They face unequal exposure since many of their vital organs, including the heart, lungs and brain, are still developing. They breathe faster, have narrower airways and are more physically active.
As a result, levels of pollution that would cause only mild irritation in a healthy adult can cause considerable and even long-term harm for young children. If I think about my new baby daughter’s tiny lungs, it seems obvious that children need more protection. Sadly, air pollution is, however, responsible for up to 30 per cent of all new cases of asthma in children.
It’s clear we all have a responsibility to clean up our air. This is even more apparent when we are reminded of the death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah.
Air pollution causes up to 30 per cent of all new cases of asthma in children
Ella suffered a fatal asthma attack in 2013 after three years of seizures and breathing problems. The two-week inquest into the circumstances of her death ruled that air pollution made a material contribution to Ella’s death. Air pollution will now be listed on her death certification as the cause of her death. This landmark conclusion has rightly raised awareness about the impact dirty air can have on our children’s health.
Solutions are available to make it easier for our children in towns and cities to breathe fresher air, especially when they travel to and from school. One option is to roll out school streets.
This simple idea restricts traffic on roads outside schools at opening and closing times to improve road safety, reduce air pollution and encourage children to cycle and walk to school. Traffic restrictions are enforced by access signs, temporary bollards and sometimes automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras.
A new report has revealed that school streets are increasingly feasible. Its assessment shows that half of all schools in UK towns and cities could readily roll out school streets to improve local air pollution and road safety. The proportion could potentially increase to two-thirds, and the benefits magnified, if the school street was coupled with wider measures.
School streets are popular too. A YouGov poll found that 64 per cent of the public support the creation of car-free zones outside schools during pick-up and drop-off times, even if this makes it less convenient for some parents.
School streets can be an effective tool to promote active travel and encourage families to cycle, scoot or walk more. Half of school-run car trips are currently for journeys under two miles.
Importantly, previous research has shown that school streets don’t displace traffic but reduce it overall.
Our schools and streets are quieter at the moment, but out of sight should not mean out of mind. We should take steps now to improve air pollution around schools for when attendance restrictions are lifted. The roll-out of school streets up and down our country, not just in London, is the perfect first step to achieving this and could be a lasting positive legacy of our pandemic response.
I receive letters from children about the environment all the time. They want politicians to act. Where better to show them that we are listening than by improving the air around their schools?
The government has the opportunity to unlock this potential by providing not just additional funding, but also powers to local authorities so that measures to support school streets can be implemented.