In 2019, a study of more than 2,000 schoolchildren in east London showed that those in the most polluted places were growing smaller lungs. This year, an evidence review by the US Health Effects Institute showed strong links between traffic pollution and children’s asthma.
So, should air pollution be a factor in choosing your child’s school? In 2019, 248 pupils were given an air pollution rucksack to wear for a week. As well as space for their belongings it contained a small device to measure what they breathed.
The air at school was not the biggest problem – air pollution on the journey to and from home was worse. Walking along main roads led to the greatest exposure, and the children who travelled by car breathed more air pollution than those who walked along quiet roads. Improving air pollution around schools and encouraging walking along less busy roads could therefore help to reduce children’s air pollution exposure.
School streets started in 1989 in the Italian town of Bolzano. The idea is simple. Stop traffic using the road outside the school during pick-up and drop-off times and open the space for walking and cycling. Road accidents were halved in the Bolzano scheme.
Scotland introduced its first school streets in 2015 and the first London schemes began in 2017.
In 2020, I watched the inauguration of a school street near my home. Once the road was closed, children and parents were no longer confined to the narrow pavement behind parked cars and pedestrian barriers. The road was rapidly filled with play and chatter, transforming it from a safety problem into an asset for the community.
A study of 16 school streets in London showed that nitrogen dioxide, one of the pollutants from 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 wider area.
The Brighton & Hove Green party councillor, Steve Davis, explained the thinking behind their expanding school streets programme: “Pollution created by the school run was a real worry for us and something residents often raised.
“School streets have been an enormous success but we’ve had to rely heavily on volunteers and try different road closure methods to get them right. The difference they have made to the health and wellbeing of our children is something I am extraordinarily proud of.”
School streets are not on main roads. Small-scale low-emission zones and targeted vehicle upgrades have reduced local traffic pollution but these schemes are yet to be focused on schools. Examples include the upgrade of buses along polluted arterial routes in London. In central Brighton, excluding the most polluting diesel taxis and buses along the main shopping streets also helped to reduce air pollution.