School traffic – it’s probably not on anyone’s list of favourite things. But it’s a problem worth tackling. If children are safe to make their own way to school, their health and learning would improve, parents would be freed from taxi driver service, and congestion, emissions, noise and fumes would all reduce.

This post is about how the Ministry of Education could help.

In December, the Government announced a very welcome infrastructure package for schools, which:

was the largest investment in school property in 25 years.

The focus was on quick implementation. The money was intended for deferred building work already in the plans; it wasn’t about transport. Yet changes to schools can easily impact the transport network nearby, for good or ill.

In April last year I learned there was little climate guidance coming from government:

The State Services Commission has not received or given any directions from government or to government departments in relation to reducing carbon emissions, reducing the nation’s travel (vehicle km travelled) and about land use planning to reduce travel need and thus carbon emissions.

This was still the case in June this year, when I heard from the Ministry of Education:

There has been no formal instruction for school design to prioritise walking/cycling [from any other part of government].

The Ministry has not received an instruction from any other part of government to reduce transport carbon emissions.

The biggest investment in school property in 25 years is being made without requirements to improve climate, safety and modeshift outcomes in transport. Without competent transport oversight, we can expect some of the projects to worsen school traffic, make it harder to walk and cycle to school, establish poor travel habits, and create “stranded assets” for schools in the low-carbon (and probably budget-constrained) future we face.

Why should the Ministry of Education be concerned about transport?

Children suffer in the wider transport system and the transport choices school communities make can also exacerbate traffic hazards for students. This is a national issue, which has proven too difficult for schools to deal with individually.

The New Zealand curriculum expects students will learn to act independently, participate in communities, look to the future, value ecological sustainability, and gain a sense of belonging. An ability to travel independently, and to be part of the transport solution, not the transport problem, is important to all these things.

I outlined in Mind That Child ways transport can be made safe for children. Children who travel independently – on foot, or on their bike, scooter or skateboard – are far better set up for the day’s learning, physical health and emotional happiness. A recent survey at a school in the Orakei Local Board area shows that the overwhelming majority of parents would like their children to walk or cycle to school. The children preferred biking and scootering over walking.

Research from Dunedin shows that including some active travel in the journey to school substantially increases the chance of teenagers getting enough physical activity:

Some active travel” could be enabled by simple improvements even if the student still travels by car or bus:

  • School streets that require parents to park a distance away from the school reduce the chaos around the school gates, and make the walking and cycling environment much safer.
  • Switching from car to bus introduces the walk or scooter to the bus stop – for independent children to be safe this requires pedestrian crossings and safe traffic speeds.
  • Improving the bus network can remove another barrier to students travelling by bus (instead of caving to parents’ demands for parking by altering bus routes!)

And the researchers suggest:

Multisector efforts and collaborations among schools, local governments, health promotion agencies, communities, and parents are necessary for implementing policies, programs, and built environment changes to encourage the incorporation of active travel to school even when active travel only is not feasible.

The Ministry of Education is well placed to lead this. They recognise the need to collaborate:

We shape an education system that delivers equitable and excellent outcomes… This involves coordination with other sector and government agencies and forums and some cross-sector work programmes.

Equity and excellence cannot be achieved unless broad considerations of the health and educational impacts of transport are understood.

In addition, transport planning for schools is so obviously material to our climate response and transport emissions, that the Ministry of Education is legally required to make decisions that take into account:

the 1.5ºC target, the 2050 target, and the carbon budgets.

Some key changes the Ministry could make:

  • Design of School Buildings and Grounds
  • Advocacy and Education
  • Travel planning

Design of School Buildings and Grounds

Driveways and car parks are the “connecting space” between buildings at this high school. (With more parking along and across the road, too.)

School buildings and grounds influence travel choices through:

  • Spatial arrangements
  • Facilities and operations
  • Parking provision

In June I was advised:

The Ministry does not have specific policies on designing for pedestrians/bikes/scooters

There are no formal policies on reducing transport carbon emissions as part of school design

No, [the MoE does not have a modeshift policy]

They did, however, refer to their document, Designing Schools in New Zealand – Requirements and Guidelines (2015). This says schools should be designed to:

Promote safe and easy access by all modes of transport and encourage students and staff to travel by sustainable modes of transport wherever possible.

Work through an arrival and departure strategy placing priority on pedestrians, then bicycles and scooters, then bus and public transport, then private vehicles…

Design to give priority to measures that improve… the reduction of emissions to the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, as expressed to me by a consultant involved with schools:

MoE doesn’t have any general principles from what I can recall. They basically are guided by what the principal and board of trustees want and then help to facilitate that. The consultant team that is then contracted have to meet safety in design standards as a checkbox exercise. But that can be ‘clear and safe crossing across driveways and footpaths through parking areas’. There are no wider safety objectives encouraged or required through that process.

This primary school had a major rebuild in 2017 but didn’t take the opportunity to repair the severance between street and school:

People on skateboards, scooters, bikes, foot, wheelchairs – plus the waste and recycling bins – must share the small footpath:

Fences seem to have become fashionable:

There are good reasons for using fences, but they tend to funnel people into a few points of congestion, which is often neither safe nor convenient. This can then result in onerous school rules limiting what students with bikes or scooters can do, pushing modeshift the wrong way, and requiring teachers to waste their built up social capital on enforcement.

There is no guidance on how to minimise the effect of fences on walking and cycling in the official Fencing at Schools document for boards of trustees.

Reducing the volume of parking is a key lever for reducing how much people drive, both because people are encouraged to travel sustainably if parking is limited, and because putting land to better uses reduces travel distances.

The excessive US-level of parking provided at this newish school in a suburb touted as ‘walkable’.

The school design guide doesn’t help. It says:

Schools must accommodate the use of private vehicles for permanent members of staff, school visitors and parents/caregivers who drop-off students and for senior students.

This needs revision. Meanwhile, having to accommodate vehicles does not constitute having to provide free parking for every teacher or parent who finds it easier to drive.

Schools often provide bike racks, but lack warm, dry places to put wet raincoats, shoes and cycling gear, meaning many people switch to driving when it’s wet. This puts extra cars on the road just when the weather itself introduces risks. For safety’s sake, standard school design should include quality storage facilities.

Advocacy and Education

A brand new suburb built around the car, lacking pedestrian crossings and safe cycling infrastructure.

Schools are often plonked into poorly designed, car dependent suburbs.

Brand-new school on a single-mode road.

The building in the above picture is a new school in a new suburb, discussed in this Times Online article from last year:

The Howick Local Board has allocated more than $500,000 in funding to build a temporary pedestrian bridge on Flat Bush School Road to provide safe access to the primary school.

This follows 11 months of discussions between the school, Auckland Transport (AT) and the Howick Local Board on ways to improve safety conditions for students walking to and from the new school.

The current bridge access to the school is narrow with no footpaths.

Board of Trustees chair Karen Gibson pleaded with the board at Monday night’s board meeting to make a decision on a new and safe pedestrian bridge.

“We need to see the board moving decisively tonight to remedy the daily situation where five-year-old pedestrians continue to dice with 3m wide concrete trucks on a 7.5m wide bridge as they walk to and from school every day,” she said.

That a school board had to spend 11 months lobbying – and the local board had to spend half a million dollars – to achieve something as basic as a footpath to a school, is an indictment of our urban planning.

The Ministry of Education could become a source of advocacy knowledge and transport guidance for school communities, and advocate much more forcefully than individual schools can. The community education potential about transport would also be large. Advocacy is needed for:

  • School streets and low traffic neighbourhoods,
  • Safer speed limits and enforcement,
  • Low emissions zones, and switching engines off,
  • Safe footpaths, pedestrian crossings and protected cycling,
  • Child-friendly bus improvements,
  • Enforcement of parking rules,
  • Better urban planning.

This would leave principals able to focus on the business of running a school. As it is, schools are loathe to tackle even egregious health and safety problems like parking on footpaths or leaving engines to idle, and it’s clear to see why.

Travel Planning

Many pathways passing through schools are closed off, limiting the travel options available to students and staff.

Opening this gate would provide an effective off-road link, for students walking to school.

Waka Kotahi provides a booklet to help schools develop a safe school travel plan, written in 2011. A decade later is a good time for the Ministry of Education to request something more effective. What’s needed is a fully resourced and supported programme, that enables wholescale changes to the transport system.

In Summary

Our problems with traffic safety, carbon emissions and public health mean our car dependent transport system needs a radical overhaul. Schools are well placed in the community to lead changes where they relate to safety around schools, but need support and evidence-based guidance. The Ministry of Education could provide this.

In turn, the government needs to provide clear instructions on transport and land use policy to the Ministry of Education.

Electrification to save the planet – for driving a walkable distance? – Hyundai Kona EV technology advertising 245 school runs – of 900m each way – on one charge.
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  1. Hear hear Heidi, some good people in the ministry. At our school the principal was pushing for more parking. And the ministry Rep said no. Many kids go to school by themselves where we are and that is entirely because of good road design which I have a feeling was pushed by Pippa at the local board. As you say local boards shouldn’t have to use limited budgets on schools but they must as kids’ safety is a top priority. It would be terrific if access to school had guidelines.

  2. Getting the MoE to entertain the slightest sense of future focused thought will be extremely difficult.
    In Mt Roskill they didnt even talk to kainga ora about the huge rebuild and havent planned for the increase in students that will follow on.

  3. You might want to check out the new school in Wainui that is planned to be opened in 2023. It has been masterplanned for cycling and walking, etc.

    The road around the designation has wider than standard footpaths, 9 raised pedestrian crossings, dedicated cycleways and limited parking.

    Not all schools are master-planned but that area is certainly setup for walking and cycling.

  4. The irony is parents dropping their kids off at school by car because of the fear that the roads are so busy, when most of the traffic is parents dropping their kids off to school by car.

    1. Yes, and it shows how impotent individuals are. Even at schools where the vast majority of students walk to school, doing so has little effect on preventing the traffic chaos created by those who drive. And where it’s quite unsafe for the children to walk to school independently, which is what the parents would prefer, of course the parents drive them. Vicious example of the need for collectivism because individual action is insufficient.

      I think this pair of videos is useful:

      Because all the parents in Auckland dropping their kids off by car, would in either of those examples, do what the local families are doing, too. It’s all about the infrastructure and systems we provide.

  5. Perhaps AT would be a good place to start. I worked on a school job a few years ago where the Ministry said they didn’t want to waste a big chunk of there site as a drop off area for cars. Enter AT who demanded a big drop off area or they would oppose the thing.

    1. AT is a good place to start. So many anecdotes of schools trying to get pedestrian crossings on desire lines for their students, and AT refusing.

      I guess for all those schools and families trying to get change, I’d recommend not limiting your campaigning to just one organisation. There are systematic changes needed in all the organisations.

      1. My daughters primary school is at the end of a short cul de sac. The footpaths are narrow and in atrocious condition, the street full of parked cars, and the speed limit is 50 km/hr even though 30 km/hr over a few hundred metres would only add a few seconds to the journey. AT are clueless, unless someone seriously complains they don’t act.

  6. As an aside for anyone who is interested. The Ministry of Education has a policy of only paying for school buses to travel to the nearest school where there is no public transport. The thresholds for their subsidy is travel must be more that 3.2km for primary students and 4.8km for secondary. When I was a board chairman I was advocating for a school bus for some kids and I got to the bottom of why they have such random distances. Turns out the policy was written back in 1918 when the thresholds were 2 miles and 3 miles!

    1. When I was working at the Ministry of Education in the early 2000s, a colleague tried to have this changed to 3km and 5km, but the loss aversion among the parents who lived between 4.8km and 5km from schools was sufficiently great, and they were sufficiently organised, to push the Minister to cancel the change.

      1. The purpose of the policy is to subsidise travel for country families, regardless of their income while denying any help to urban families regardless of their need. A single public bus passing through the threshold area disqualifies a family even if it is impractical or even dangerous to use that bus. The Ministry told us kids could cross the old SH1 on Albany Hill to use a bus. I wouldn’t try and cross that road.

    2. Also as an aside, my rural primary school in the 1980s had a sports field across the road that was still called the ‘horse paddock’. When my grandfather had gone to the same school in the 1920s, many kids (including my grandfather) rode horses to school, and they left them in the paddock during the school day.

  7. Most new school sites are whatever piece of land that developers offer when MoE realise they are going to need a new school (eg. Top left hand corner of Orewa almost backing onto the motorway). It’s a pleasant surprise when one actually turns up in the middle of a community. Actual master planning where developer and MoE talk to AC and AT early on is becoming something that happens sometimes. It is then possible to plan access sensibly. Most of the time master planning has been for residential streets then suddenly a swathe of streets and houses turns into a school too late to change the surroundings.

  8. PUDO (pick up & drop off) is needed for some mobility needs and for some – not all – schools where some of the catchment is remote. Local streets vary in how much off-site PUDO they can handle. So there should not be any ‘always’ rule for them. But when the consultants say that they don’t need to consider parking in streets near a school because they have put in a PUDO loop right at the front door of the school, it is hard to shift the conversation. And how many spaces should they provide? In one case the calculation was based on Airport PUDO zone. Don’t they know that classes all end at the same time?

  9. “The Ministry has not received an instruction from any other part of government to reduce transport carbon emissions.” – and that other quote shows this is true of all the departments and ministries. This is worse than the articles about government vehicle fleets.

    Makes this announcement yesterday a bit of a joke:

    “During our first term in Government, climate change was at the centre of all our policy work and commitments. It is inextricably linked to our decisions on issues like housing, agriculture, waste, energy and transport.”

    I mean, I know National is worse, but I expected more from Labour.

    1. I’ve never understood why people expect more from Labour, they’re both very centrist when it comes to the environment and generally move with trends rather than set them.

      It was Labour who banned logging on the West Coast and offshore oil exploration. However, at other times Labour supported a road through the Heaphy when National opposed it, they’ve opposed the Kermadec Marine Reserve, which National and the Greens support.

      1. Agree. Labour are centrists, Ardern is a popularist, and they are billions of miles from ‘transformative’.
        Vote Green!
        Great article, btw.

    2. “During our first term in Government, climate change was at the centre of all our policy work and commitments. It is inextricably linked to our decisions on issues like housing, agriculture, waste, energy and transport.”

      I work in a government department and the only time that I have heard the words “climate change” mentioned is when I have asked a question about it.

      Their statement is rubbish.

  10. Check out the streets near Rangitoto College during half the afternoon. We may almost despair of mothers sitting in queues all along the street for an hour just to be able to pick up someone who could catch a bus or walk home in half that time.

    1. Oh yeah, the first time I saw that I was staggered.
      Try riding down the (unprotected) bike lane on Rosedale Rd around school finishing time – a queue of cars sitting in the bike lane and going right out onto East Coast Rd. Bonkers.

      1. Shit like this kind of makes me want to just half book it down the bike lane, or on the footpath if they have take the entire lane, and hit as many mirrors as possible. 10 points each. Or perhaps a little exposed metal on the end of the handlebar (maybe that’s too far). Good luck finding me afterwards, no numberplate, wear a mask, leave over a park or something where cars cant follow. I would never, but some part of me wants to. Probably wouldn’t win many friends for cyclists / cycling either

        1. Some of the large trucks have names like Rapter and RAM. Clearly not aimed at soothing your average walker or cyclist.

    2. When I was working on a School Travel Plan in Porirua, about 12 years ago now, we interviewed parents sitting in the car outside the school. Many arrived over an hour before the bell to ensure a spot. When asked one parent said it was ” at least a 10 minute walk” from home to school. When asked why didn’t they walk to school the response was ” I don’t want to leave the car home alone”.

  11. When cycling I plan my routes to avoid schools during drop off and pick up times. They now seem one of the more dangerous zones given the number of cars – or increasingly large trucks posing as people movers – coming and going with some opening doors without checking for cyclists.

  12. The high school that I attended had a rule that students must wear compliant uniform on the journey to and from school. No additional jackets, no alternative clothes. I walked to school about 90% of school days and when it was raining I would wear a jacket that i took off before crossing the final road crossing to the school. I frequently got harassed by the staff at the front gate for this. The school also had a single set of bike racks right in the centre. The racks are 400, 450, 520, and 550m from the four official entrances. Students were required to walk their bikes to the rack. Bikes locked anywhere else where removed immediately. This often meant an 800m walk to the rack and back to a classroom.

    Many schools have draconian laws like this that act to force students into cars.

    1. Uniforms are generally not designed for our walking and cycling in our climate. Even if they were, they are unlikely to suit all children’s needs – and with children constantly growing, where on the child’s leg the raincoat sheds its water is constantly changing, for example. Families need much more flexibility to be able to provide suitable clothing for walking and cycling.

      I particularly hate seeing dark-coloured raincoats as part of uniforms. I’m not suggesting kids should wear hiviz, but they should be able to choose the visibility they want, and this might be different for a student who only has to make a mad dash to the parents’ waiting car, than for a student who crosses busy roads without pedestrian crossings to the bus stop, or the student who regularly trudges home in the dark.

      The draconian rules preventing adaptation to make the uniform practical are an inexplicable part of our culture; such power play is unhealthy, and I just don’t understand why the country puts up with such crap.

      1. I’d prefer a ministerial directive that schools may not restrict what students wear outside of the school grounds at all. Why should a child have to wear a $100 school uniform coat when a $5 coat from the op-shop could achieve better rain and wind protection.

        Within the anglo world, these draconian rules are also a really specific New Zealand thing. It definitely doesn’t happen to anywhere near the same extent at schools in the UK or Australia. We also seem much more willing to accept adults (especially school staff) bullying children. Just look at the exmple of the boy who was essentially arrested by security guards while cycling to his grandparents’ house on the Onehunga bridge; or see how many schools punish children for sharing food; or see how many children have been (illegally) refused boarding a bus for only having ‘large’ notes to pay with; or see how often people will stop to scold children for attempting to cross busier roads.

        1. Agreed.

          Hopefully demographic change (greater proportion of millennials as parents and teachers) will result in the rules evolving to be less arbitrary and draconian. There will be some generational/cultural clashes, It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.

        2. Its not just uniforms either, It can be anything. I know a few schools in Dunedin that have blanket policies against anything that makes the school look bad. You aren’t allowed to do stuff like go to parties etc etc (even if you are 18) and they will punish you for doing it, threats of suspension or expulsion. Completely in your own time. This happens in society at large too. I always thought that the company or school shouldn’t have anything to do with your life outside of their property or their time even if they have you sign something about their policies etc etc.

        3. I have always wondered whether many of these rules are legal given that students have a legal right to education.

    2. This stuff is insane.

      I just don’t get it. Who comes up with these rules and thinks it is a good idea? Who are those people?

      It may very well be the case that driving a car is part of how to be an upstanding citizen.

  13. The journey to and from school is:
    – highly predictable (most pupils make this journey most days)
    – undertaken by people who cannot drive (except for the oldest pupils)
    – a significant drain on parents’ time when they have to provide a chauffeur service

    Walkable, scootable, bikeable routes to school would address all of these. Maybe some leadership can come from Waka Kotahi NZTA – one of the recent ‘Innovating Streets for People’ schemes is centred on safe school streets:

    “Safe School Streets Mangere – This is part of the Safe and Healthy Streets South Auckland project that aims to achieve a fun, safe, healthy and well-connected Māngere and Manukau. Five Mangere schools will be involved.”

  14. I’m trying to get Auckland Transport to do something about illegal parking on the footpath on Union Street, the main pedestrian route to Freemans Bay School. There are 3-400 kids who walk here twice a day, and when the illegal parking is bad, kids are walking onto Union Street to get by, or cars are trying to drive onto or off the path while kids are walking.

    Auckland Transport are being relatively responsive when I call it it, and I’ve seen some of the cars with tickets on the windshield, but trying to get anything preventative done is proving harder.

    Just recently, someone (building manager of the building, perhaps?) have put Amalgamated Towing’s ‘Authorised Parking Only’ signs on the buildings beside the footpath, with threats of towing and clamping of ‘unauthorised vehicles’. Seems to be a step towards claiming the footpath as a private parking area?

  15. Can anyone explain to me why a School has such a ridiculous security fence outside of it?
    It’s a school FFS, not a prison nor military facility.

    1. I assume you are thinking of the image with the razor wire!? If so it is likely the school has an issue with vandalism at night and over the weekend.

      These aren’t common but I’ve seen one in Otahuhu, it’s sad for the community not just because it reflects local socio-economic issues but also because it excludes kids from accessing the grounds to play over the weekend.

      The other less intimidating looking fences will generally be at primary schools where they are concerned about the younger kids straying into traffic.

        1. Security cameras are good if you want to increase the chances of a prosecution but not much use for protecting property.

          I think Heidi has a good point though, make it more of a community centre so that it is unoccupied less often.

      1. In some places schools are being conceived as community hubs, designed to have activity throughout the whole year, weekends, evenings and holidays included. It seems we’re choosing to go down a particular but known path here of creating divisions and exclusions instead.

        1. I’ve wondered why we don’t do that in NZ. Seems strange that we pay for the school + playground + sports fields + specialist rooms for libraries, sewing/cooking etc., then go and buy other land and build another playground, another library etc. We should be able to design the “school only” parts to be closed off when not in use and the shareable facilities to be shared.

        2. I think it’s about reacting to one particular problem or perceived problem (eg dangerous rubbish being left in the grounds) without taking an evidence-based approach to balancing the wider considerations (eg social problems arising from insufficient walkable, quiet spaces separate from residences and from traffic; rising costs from having to provide more amenities per capita).

    2. My daughter’s Primary was open and encouraged community use on weekends and after school. Then a student enrolled who was described as a “runner”. Ministry made school fence off the school ( although school didn’t lock it on weekends). Of course the runner moved to another school midway through the term. School had asked for a support person to help rather than a fence but Ministry said no.

    3. Ignorant comments from affluent (probably white) folk on this site are always hilarious. Living in a bubble, removed from the harsh reality that exists in places they only hear about on the news. There is serious social dysfunction in NZ right now, with a big increase in gang membership.

      Dysfunctional families exist everywhere, but get worse when you throw poverty into the mix, so in poorer areas the kids avoid home because things aren’t great there. They might be bored, angry, high, all of the above. So they wander around the streets and get into trouble. Schools in poorer areas are constant targets of vandalism, so they need the high fences as a deterrent. Cameras at night are basically useless. Vandals aren’t stupid and just cover their face. And then steal the camera, break a few windows. And then run off before anyone turns up.

  16. The other thing we should point out. 30-40 years ago it would be no problem as each house have 1 or 2 cars and very few cars parked on the street. It was easy to cycle then. Nowaday each house have 3-4 cars and lot more cars parked on the street which make cycling and driving little bit more challenging as there are lot more obstacles about.

    1. Yes, plus the illegal parking on the verges and footpaths.

      There are more driveways to cross or pass, too, because we’ve allowed infill to be done so very badly. Often there’s a double driveway for the front house and a single driveway for the rear. Which makes cycling, scootering, walking all more dangerous. And it was about 25 years ago that we started putting in the “pedestrians must give way to traffic” signs on pseudo-crossings, which have slowly and steadily worsened the driving culture.

  17. Hi Heidi, great article thanks. I work for Auckland Transport and it seems blindingly obvious of the multiple benefits you get from better school w&C access. Better journeys, safety, less traffic, pollution, save time for parents, child independence and importantly much lower carbon emissions/car km. In short multiple benefits – why isnt this high priority! Auckland councils new draft carbon policy is to reduce emissions 50% by 2030 which includes 700% increase in w&C I believe. So I share your frustration that more can’t be done by both AT and Council…all i can say is keep pushing and get higher up the tree if possible. Maybe I can help facilitate this- can you do e.g. 20 or 30 minute presentation? This would be great for my local area where we have 3 schools in close proximity+parks and multiple improvements that can be made to increase safety/W&C accessibility.

    1. Hi Timster, Thanks for your encouragement. I will keep pushing. 🙂 That’s a great offer to help facilitate – having an internal champion seems to make a big difference to the success of progressive ideas. I have a couple of ideas. Have a think about whether you’d like to discuss your local area with me – maybe that could be a project? You can contact me through the blog contact if you’d like.

  18. Traffic is really a problem not just for adults but also for students. Unconsciously, traffic causes exhaustion to students. A student may sometimes if not often times feel tired eventhough they just arrived to school early in the morning! Sad thing is they do not even know that traffic is one of the biggest contributing factor of it. I was once a student and have experienced it too. Specially from longer distances.
    Maybe the no garage no car policy be considered?

    West Auckland

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