School streets air quality testing launched in London

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The impact of the School Streets programme on air quality will be assessed to evaluate the health impact for students.
The impact of the School Streets programme on air quality will be assessed to evaluate the health impact for students.

A new air quality testing programme has been launched to assess the impact of the Mayor of London’s School Streets, a vehicle restriction scheme around schools during peak hours across the city, thanks to funding from the FIA Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies.

School Streets closes roads surrounding schools to motor traffic at drop-off and pick-up times with the aim to enable social distancing and improve road safety and air quality by encouraging more families to switch to walking, cycling or scooting. The city’s wider Streetspace plan aims to provide safe space for walking and cycling to avoid a damaging car-led response to coronavirus.

The school run makes up a quarter of London’s weekday morning traffic, according to Transport for London (TFL), with an average journey of less than one kilometre. Around half of London’s emissions come from road transport, and the city’s air pollution leads to thousands of premature deaths in the capital every year as well as stunting the development of young lungs, increasing cases of respiratory illness and limiting cognitive development.

Nitrogen dioxide levels will be recorded at 18 primary schools across the city to measure the impact of School Streets and compare them to schools with roads which remain open to motor traffic. Surveys will try to measure behavioural changes as a result of new School Streets such as reduced car use and increased walking, cycling and scooting.

The study – which is the first of its scale - has been co-funded by the FIA Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Greater London Authority. It is intended to add to the global evidence base to support the introduction of School Streets, and help build the case for making more of the temporary Schools Streets permanent. It reflects the growing broad public demand for the interlinked issues of safer streets for kids and cleaner air – polling by YouGov for the Child Health Initiative has shown that almost three-quarters of people worldwide support physical changes such as road closures, limiting traffic and reducing speeds to protect children while three in five are worried about air pollution.

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said: “I’m delighted that we are launching our School Streets air quality monitoring project on Car Free Day. It is vital that we don’t throw away the improvements made to air quality during lockdown and the past few months with a damaging car-based recovery from this pandemic.

“The 430 new School Streets which have been funded as part of our world-leading Streetspace plan will play an important role in enabling parents and children to walk, cycle or scoot to and from school which has so many benefits, not least in improving air quality. Too many lives are already lost each year as a result of our city’s toxic air and the results of our monitoring study will show just how much of a difference reducing car journeys through School Streets makes.”

Sheila Watson, FIA Foundation Deputy Director, said: “Every child should be safe on their journey to school, but those living in urban areas face a double threat – from the toxic emissions pumped out by vehicles they pass, and from road traffic injury. We must find the solutions which protect them from dirty air and dangerous roads and enable them to move freely and safely. Key to that is understanding what works, and that is why we at the FIA Foundation are proud to be supporting this assessment of the Mayor of London’s School Streets programme, not just to find the right solutions for the children of this city but also to learn lessons for children in cities across the world.”

To build a city case study with global relevance, the FIA Foundation has contributed to a number of air quality programmes in London, notably the research paper ‘London's Polluted Schools: The Social Context’ which explores the inequalities of air pollution exposure for children from the most deprived backgrounds in the city. The FIA Foundation is also one of the partners of The Real-world Urban Emissions Initiative (TRUE), which undertook analysis of the city’s traffic which resulted in the Mayor of London introducing new policies to accelerate the shift to electric black cabs to improve air quality.

Michael R. Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies and three-term Mayor of New York City added: “Reducing air pollution is good for public health and the environment – and it’s especially important to protect the health and wellbeing of our children. I want to thank Mayor Khan for tackling this issue through his School Streets initiative. Our new partnership will help the mayor and his team measure the impact of the initiative to improve air quality, and will inform their efforts to expand the program and reduce pollution across London.”