Oxfordshire’s School Streets pilots

Tackling the traffic elephant one bite at a time

By Jonny Ives

This week two primary schools in Oxford launched the county council’s School Streets pilot project, taking a big step towards the goal of safe and active travel options for all school students.

The concept of the School Streets project is quite simple: using temporary barriers, some signs and a few volunteers, the road outside a school is closed to motor vehicles for a short period of time either side of the start and end of the school day. Anyone walking or cycling can pass through the barriers, while drivers are advised of alternative routes. Emergency vehicles, blue badge holders and anyone who lives within the School Street are also allowed through.

This means that at drop-off and pick-up time, parents and children can arrive at school without having to worry about passing traffic, cars trying to park by the gates, or the difficulties of social distancing on a narrow pavement. School Streets also lower pollution around schools, improve air quality and encourage more people to think about how they might be able to get to school rather than driving. Parents are also more likely to let their older children walk or cycle to and from school on their own, particularly if the School Street is in a low-traffic neighbourhood.

Far from creating traffic gridlock around schools, a number of School Street schemes around the UK (Oxfordshire is not the first area to try the School Streets approach) have found a marked reduction in traffic levels on surrounding roads at drop-off and pick-up times.

Oxfordshire’s first School Streets schemes, at St Christopher’s in Cowley and Windmill in Headington, are scheduled to run for six weeks and the county council is collecting traffic and environmental data before, during and after the pilots, not to mention any feedback on the School Street project that anyone might care to offer.

The first few days of the barriers going up have been encouragingly free of incident, with plenty of positive comments from parents arriving at school, lots of questions about how the scheme works, and little evidence of disgruntlement and antagonism from drivers.

There’s no doubt that introducing and sustaining a School Street project involves a lot of work, both for the school and the volunteers, at a time when resources are under unprecedented pressure. However, the opportunity to create safe, car-free spaces right outside our schools is one that many seem to have embraced as too good to miss. Three other schools around the county are scheduled to be involved in the pilot and a number of other schools are reported to be keen to have a School Street of their own.

High volumes and high speeds of traffic have long been the elephant in the room when discussing active travel to school, but Oxfordshire’s School Streets may just have taken a big bite out of the problem. And, as any zookeeper will tell you, when it comes to eating an elephant, the only way to do it is one mouthful at a time.

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