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
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 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
Schools are often plonked into poorly designed, car dependent suburbs.
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.
Many pathways passing through schools are closed off, limiting the travel options available to students and staff.
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.
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.