MY ACTIVE TRAVEL YEAR WITH SCHOOLS - DAME SARAH STOREY
As the academic year draws to a close, teachers and students alike are reflecting back on the progress, changes, likes and dislikes of the past 10-11 months. In this year like no other, everyone has shown amazing resilience and adaptability as a result of operating under the restrictions of the pandemic.
Back in August 2020, the active travel programme in South Yorkshire worked with councils and active travel leads to promote the importance of everyone “doing their bit” to minimise the disruption to travel and the likely gridlock we would have faced if everyone jumped in their vehicles for the school run. It’s estimated that up to 1 in 4 vehicles in a morning is connected to a school journey, and the minority driving to school make it more unpleasant for the majority walking, taking public transport and cycling.
Schools across the region rose to the challenge and in conjunction with Living Streets and Modeshift Stars, created “walking bubbles” and additional park and stride facilities. It was heartening to speak to so many children about how much they enjoy and look forward to the opportunity to be active before and after school. Regular online assemblies added to our motivation to bring forward as many active travel measures as possible to make life easier at both ends of the school day.
With the novel coronavirus seemingly worse in areas of poor air quality  and hitting the least fit hardest, there was a real sense of urgency that everyone felt towards protecting the area around schools and giving children another opportunity to be active, after weeks of being cooped up due to lockdowns. Whether or not the pandemic is correlated with air quality, it gives a real opportunity to improve local air quality by reducing local emissions and improve health by lowering car dependency.
Across South Yorkshire more schools than ever signed up for the Living Streets WOW programme and our Living Streets coordinator quickly filled the available slots across each of the districts. Then, as lockdown eased in the spring of 2021, and the roadmap out of restrictions was introduced, I was delighted to join Mayor Dan Jarvis on a primary school visit in Barnsley East, alongside MP for the constituency Steph Peacock.
Spending time at a primary school is always very rewarding but breathes life back in to challenging circumstances. It’s also a stark reminder that so much of what these children encounter in their day to day journeys, is rarely their first choice or preference. Every time a vehicle mounts a footway to park “out of the way”, the reality is that driver is endangering anyone who wishes to use the footway. Fear of road danger can lead to children being blocked into their homes and make them far less likely to explore their neighbourhood or walk to school, compared to the experience of their parents and grandparents .
The school we visited was doing an amazing job of enabling children to arrive by active means. Working towards a school street [where the road outside the school is closed to vehicle traffic for drop off and pick up hours] and generally ensuring that parents had the choice to support their children to be active. Despite the obvious health challenges for the adults of some families, there was a real community spirit that suggested everyone was keen for the children to have the choice to get and stay active.
As June marked Clean Air Day, there was a flurry of exciting activity for children and young leaders to investigate the opportunity they have to make an impact. Nothing speaks more powerfully to politicians and policy makers, than the voice of youth, so it was very humbling for the Active Travel programme to be able to contribute to the sessions, and share the work we are doing to contribute to both cleaning up the air across the region, but also to the Net Zero agenda and well-known benefits to public health and general environment in which we operate.
Lastly, in July, we had the first of a new tranche of school street pilots in Doncaster and Barnsley. All of our four partner Authorities have run pilots of school streets and it is always a joy to see the street outside a school full of children, rather than snarled up with vehicles, sometimes with their engines running. Many people use the word traffic to only apply to vehicles, but it applies to all forms of movement, including walking and cycling. So for once, this is the sort of high traffic neighbourhood that I can heartily approve, and to hear that teachers, children, parents and even residents in Sandy Lane would like to see a more permanent arrangement was music to my ears.
One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is, “how can we help?” and “can we really make enough of an impact?”
This is where I call upon my experience from elite sport and the concept of the aggregation of marginal gains. If everyone takes responsibility to make one change and one improvement or contribution, the combined benefit of all those things is far more noticeable. Everyone can play on the same team, contributing what they are able to and gradually realising they can do more once that initial change has become second nature. Whether it’s turning one journey into an active journey every week or fortnight, or pledging always to walk or cycle when the errand is within a certain distance, there is so much everyone can work towards and little by little the overall change is significant.
I also encourage the children, as did Mayor Jarvis, to maximise the benefits of “pester power”. By empowering the voice of our young people and children, to have the confidence to share their preferences and how they’d like to travel, parents and guardians can start to make the adjustments needed to say yes to those requests more often.
So, at the end of this academic year I think all of us in the Active Travel programme would give the pupils and students of South Yorkshire a 10/10 for effort. The demand for more measures is rising and from this so much more progress will be possible. I know that now, more than ever, our leaders and policy makers are committed to furthering the network of school streets and rising to the challenge of getting more tangible infrastructure rolled out on the ground, but as with everything they need to hear when things are successful and we are always very keen to know what more can be done and where. So if you’d like to take on a summer project, it could be to introduce someone you know to the benefits of school streets and active travel, and to see whether we can further grow that groundswell of support to reduce the reliance of motor vehicle travel to all schools across the region in the coming years. It’s only by having fewer vehicles, driven less often, that we will be successful in handing on a better world to our children when the time comes.