Travel plans vital in efforts to improve air quality around schools

A recent joint investigation by the Guardian and Greenpeace highlighted that children across England and Wales are being exposed to extremely high levels of damaging air pollution caused by diesel vehicles passing by schools and nurseries.

A major contributor to air pollution and the growing concern of emissions around schools are caused by diesel vehicles, especially those being used by parents on the school run and commuters using near-by roads to get to work. Together, these contribute to high levels of NO2, particulate matter and nitrogen oxides (NOx). 

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A damaging fact and yet for the vast majority of schools within Surrey, as well as across England and Wales more generally, it is only mandatory for ‘expansion schools’ to have a travel plan to address the impact of congestion, which has a knock-on-effect on air quality. 

This lack of mandatory requirements to devise travel plans doesn’t change even if a school is found within an Air Quality Management Area (AQMA) – specific locations which have been designated for their high pollution issues. 

Dr. Nana Osei-Bonsu works in Surrey County Council’s Sustainable Travel Team and believes that the situation has been exacerbated because air quality falls to the bottom of the priority list for schools due to other pressing issues. There’s also a lack of understanding with regards to the role of a travel plan and potential benefits to address air quality issues. 

“Travel Plans are of fundamental importance and yet their value goes unrecognised,” said Dr Osei-Bonsu. “We have also seen a lack of enthusiasm amongst schools towards the development of sustainable travel plans, which is an area that needs to be improved”. 

Added to the lack of enthusiasm, is the absence of air quality management strategies at a local level that aim to improve air quality around schools. This includes the absence of initiatives to tackle high levels of NOx emissions connected with parking, congestion and private diesel vehicles use. Likewise, there is lack of understanding that air quality management plans require sustainable travel planning to improve air quality around schools and the wider community at large. 

Funding and cost-cutting measures have also hampered progress and funded projects for sustainable travel will remain crucial in tackling air quality – a health and development priority in Surrey. 

To turn this situation around, Dr. Osei-Bonsu and the ‘Sustainable Travel Team in the Place & Sustainability Group’ embarked on a number of measures to help improve air quality in Surrey. 

One initiative saw increased engagement between the Sustainable Travel Team and Woking Borough Council’s elected councillors so they could better understand the relationship between air quality and school travel plans. This approach is proving to be successful, resulting in cases where schools voluntarily enquire about travel plans. 

On Surrey County Council’s cabinet, there is a member with an interest in air quality and environmental health issues. They have been actively involved in the National School Travel Awards & Eco-school programmes, while encouraging local schools to enter the awards scheme. 

Some schools requiring travel plans have also benefited from visits by Surrey Country Council’s Travel Planners, who have imparted a deeper understanding of the environmental health impacts caused by vehicles on the air we breathe. 

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Then there is a new trial pilot project to install low-cost air quality monitors around schools in Elmbridge Borough Council. Led by an independent environmental consultant, the monitors are being placed in schools experiencing high traffic and congestion to measure NO, NO2, NOX, 03, CO, SO2 emissions during peak traffic flow. All the data collected will be sent electronically to the cloud to help build a better picture of particulate levels around schools. 

The data is of vital importance as it not only builds up intelligence to help schools devise their travel plans but also provides concrete evidence to help schools engage with their key stakeholders including parents, teachers and other members of staff, governors and the general public, to support sustainable travel initiatives. Based on the outcome of the pilot project, there is an intention to carry-out similar initiatives in the hot-spot schools in Surrey. 

 Dr. Osei-Bonsu said:  “The battle has not yet been won in Surrey, and there is still so much to do when it comes to air pollution around schools in the country. 

“But we should be very proud of the steps we are taking so far and if we are to move towards cleaner air for all, it will require a collaborative approach in bringing together different stakeholders to better engage with each other regarding coherent policy frameworks and realistic solutions or targets”. 

 “Air pollution is not a local issue. It neither recognises borders nor council boundaries. This means we need a joined-up approach across the country and we hope our experiences in Surrey will somehow provide some inspiration for others to learn from.” 


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