lIn 2019, a study of more than 2,000 schoolchildren in East London showed that those in the most polluted places were getting smaller lungs. This year, an evidence review by the US Health Effects Institute showed strong links between traffic pollution and childhood asthma.
So, should air pollution be a factor when choosing your child’s school? In 2019, 248 students received an air pollution backpack for a week. In addition to space for their belongings, it contained a small device to measure what they breathed.
The air at school wasn’t the biggest problem – the air pollution on the way home was worse. Walking along main roads led to the greatest exposure, and the children who traveled by car inhaled more air pollution than those who walked along quiet roads. Improving air pollution around schools and encouraging walking on less busy roads could therefore help reduce children’s exposure to air pollution.
School streets started in 1989 in the Italian city of Bolzano. The idea is simple. Stop traffic on the road outside the school during pick-up and drop-off times and make room for walking and cycling. Traffic accidents were halved in the Bolzano plan.
Scotland introduced its first school streets in 2015 and the first projects in London started in 2017.
In 2020 I saw the opening of a school street near my house. Once the road was closed, children and parents were no longer confined to the narrow sidewalk behind parked cars and pedestrian barriers. The road quickly filled with play and chatter, turning it from a safety concern into a community asset.
A study of 16 school streets in London showed that nitrogen dioxide, one of the pollutants in traffic, was reduced by 23% and the number of children walking or cycling to school increased by 18%. With careful design, this can lead to traffic reductions over a larger area.
Brighton & Hove Green party councillor, Steve Davis, explained the thinking behind their expanding school streets programme: “Pollution caused by the school run was a real concern for us and something residents often raised.
“School Streets are a huge success, but we relied heavily on volunteers and tried different methods of closing roads. The difference they have made to the health and well-being of our children is something I am extremely proud of.”
School streets are not adjacent to major roads. Small-scale low-emission zones and targeted vehicle upgrades have reduced local traffic pollution, but these schemes have yet to target schools. Examples include the upgrade of buses along congested arterial roads in London. In central Brighton, excluding the most polluting diesel taxis and buses along the main shopping streets also helped to reduce air pollution.