Jane Hackett of the Green-Schools Travel Programme is urging parents to avoid slipping back to the overuse of the car because of concerns over Covid-19.
IF YOU ARE a parent you will most likely be packing lunchboxes already or counting down the days until your children restart school. The beginning of any new school year is always approached with a mix of excitement, apprehension and anxiety.
However, we all know that this school year will be very different and I for one am both anxious and excited about my children’s return to the classroom. If you have been juggling working from home with minding children then you are probably desperate to get the morning routine underway and get the kids back out into the world.
The morning routine in every household starts with the journey to school. Usually, this is straightforward but because of Covid-19, we are now asking ourselves what the safest way is in which our kids can travel to school.
The latest Department of Education advice has suggested that school buses will be available for students, however, whether or not parents will be comfortable allowing their children to travel by public transport is still unknown.
A return to the car?
My concern would be that we are going to see a huge increase in the number of families who get back into their cars and end up driving their kids to school. This might seem like the easiest and safest way to get them to the school gates but more cars on our roads will mean more traffic at those gates.
It is critically important that we make sure the front of the school is a safe space for children. This means keeping cars away from the school gates and making sure they’re not parked on footpaths.
The school gate is going to be busy and everyone will be trying to keep a safe distance away from each other, therefore by limiting cars, we are allowing our children to get into their school safely without the worry of cars pulling up onto their footpaths or creating congestion outside the school.
Recent Government guidance has outlined how schools can reallocate space inside the classroom, however, limited guidance has been given with respect to how to manage the space outside the school gates.
The Department of Education is encouraging students to walk and cycle, however, if children face congestion and increased traffic on their route to school then there is less likelihood that families will get out of the car.
I have three children who have walked, scooted and now cycle to school so I am well aware of the pros and cons of leaving the car at home. We live in a city centre suburb which has limited infrastructure for cycling, however, the easiest and quickest way to get to school is by bike.
The biggest issue we face along our route is cars parked on footpaths, in cycle lanes, people breaking red lights and speeding. These are all issues that Green-Schools is working hard to reduce in partnership with Local Authorities and other stakeholders, however, ultimately we are all responsible for how we behave on our roads and how we respect other road users.
The most vulnerable road user is a child and by placing the child at the centre of all of decision making then we can make sure kids are able to walk, cycle or scoot safely to school. If you are planning to get back into the car this September I would ask you to try walking, cycling or scooting with your child first.
The benefits of active travel far outweigh the negatives and being active on the school run will help your child to concentrate in school, boost their immune system, reduce their anxiety and increase their sense of independence and freedom.
If more parents choose to leave the car at home then the knock-on effect for everyone will be cleaner air, less congestion, less noise, safer streets and happier neighbourhoods.
I know that some families do not have the infrastructure or live too far away to actively travel to school, however by parking away from the school and walking the last 500 metres you are greatly improving your child’s health and well being as well as the safety at the school gate.
Green-Schools has been working with schools for over ten years to reduce the number of cars at the school gate. The programme is focused on increasing the number of children who walk, cycle, scoot or take public transport so that children & parents have greater choices when it comes to the morning routine.
Support is there
In light of the pandemic, Green-Schools has investigated ways in which to support schools with the reopening. We’ve put together a document entitled Safe to School; An Ideas Document for Safe Access to School.
This should give school Principals and Boards of Management ideas to help children access the school grounds safely. It is also focused on giving priority to walkers and cyclists as well as giving options to car users such as Park ‘n’ Stride, where areas near the school are designated for parking and walking to the gates.
A nationwide survey revealed that schools were particularly concerned about vehicle parking and drop off congestion. These concerns were shared by urban and rural schools and are indicative of the general car culture that exists nationwide.
Some quick wins we have offered schools include informal car-free zones, Park ‘n’ Stride and improved signage as well as giving some suggestions for more formal interventions such as School Streets, School Zones and improved infrastructure.
What is a School Zone?
Green-Schools has been working in partnership with the National Transport Authority and Dublin City Council to trial the first School Zone. The aim is to reallocate space outside the school for children and includes gateway line-marking stating ‘School Zone’ at either end of the area; the front of the school area is demarcated by specific colour circles. A number of pencil-shaped bollards will prevent illegal parking in the vicinity of the school.
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The design features assist in creating a safer, calmer, more attractive environment at the school gate. Two School Zones have been trialled in Dublin City at St Francis CBS, Dublin 8 and The Central Model School, Dublin 1 and it is hoped that more schools across the country will be interested in a similar design scheme outside their schools.
We are working in partnership with Local Authorities nationwide as well as the National Transport Authority to improve access to school, improve walking and cycling infrastructure as well as to change our behaviour when it comes to the journey to school. If you are interested in finding out more please get in touch.
Jane Hackett is the National Manager of the Green-Schools Travel Programme, An Taisce. The Green-Schools Travel programme is funded by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and supported by the National Transport Authority. Stay up to date with information on Green-Schools at www.greenschoolsireland.org.