The scenes outside West Jesmond Primary School at either end of the school day on Tuesday could not have given a clearer indication of the need for a School Street to be implemented on Tankerville Terrace without delay.
Queuing children and their parents hemmed in by pedestrian guardrail to less than two metres of pavement, social distancing physically impossible, and all the while breathing filthy air from backed-up and idling vehicles. Cars parked on double yellow lines and/or two-wheels-up on the pavement – in one case directly next to a sign put out by the school urging drivers to respect students’ safety. Parents and students on foot reporting a sense of vulnerability and unease they had not felt for some time.
No space for social distancing here
It was entirely foreseeable that this would happen with public transport use being discouraged and social distancing requirements in place, and therefore wholly preventable.
A School Street is a simple restriction of street space outside schools to pedestrians and cyclists at the start and end of the school day. The debate about a school street outside WJPS has rumbled on for ages, since well before the pandemic, and decision-makers seem paralysed by fear of angering drivers and a consequent desire for a perfect traffic management scheme that upsets no-one and as such doesn’t exist.
We know that most of the drivers who would be affected by a school street are parents or carers themselves, with children at WJPS, Percy Hedley (which has its own circulation space for vehicles) or one of the private schools further down Tankerville Terrace. We have come across very few who would regard having to park a little further away from school as an unacceptable price to pay for ample space, clean air and a feeling of safety outside school.
This isn’t something that needs a complicated or permanent technical solution. It can be physically implemented with a few bollards or wheeled planters. It can be tried out to see if it works. It is entirely within the ambit of the active travel measures the government is urging on councils and which Newcastle City Council has already deployed with great fanfare – and very welcome success – in the city centre and elsewhere. SPACE for Jesmond and others have offered to help the Council implement a scheme on the ground.
With scenes like yesterday’s, shared widely by frustrated parents on social media, it is no longer disappointing but merely baffling that basic School Street measures aren’t being implemented outside West Jesmond Primary – and other schools around the city – as a matter of urgency. It begs the question what further evidence could possibly be brought to bear to persuade decision-makers of the necessity of urgent action to protect children and parents around schools from Covid or worse.
This article is an open letter to Arlene Ainsley, Newcastle Council cabinet member for Transport and Air Quality, Nick Forbes, the leader of Newcastle City Council and also the six councillors who represent North Jesmond and South Jesmond.
The area around West Jesmond Primary School is very busy with traffic from the three schools on Tankerville terrace, which SPACEforJesmond believe should be a priority for our community to address. High levels of traffic around the schools – some from within Jesmond and as little as 300 metres away – create an unsafe and polluted environment for our children.
In order to quantify pollution levels, last winter SPACEforJesmond used a portable air quality monitor to sample the air around Jesmond, primarily on the school run and around West Jesmond Primary school. This revealed “hotspots” of pollution in areas where it might be expected, such as Osborne Road and Tankerville Terrace. The portable air quality monitor measured particulate matter (PM) of various sizes, all of which have a detrimental effect on our health. The monitor did not however measure Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) which is the focus of much attention at the moment due its harmful effects, especially on children, who are still developing physically. NO2, a bi-product of diesel combustion, has an impact on respiratory health and development and has been indicated as a cause of obesity in children.
The air quality monitor is mounted on a lamp-post and solar powered
Thanks to the Urban Observatory, a lamp-post mounted air quality monitor was installed outside West Jesmond Primary School for the start of the new school year. This sensor measures, amongst other things, Nitrogen Dioxide (not to be confused with Nitrous Oxide, a.k.a. laughing gas).
Urban Observatory air pollution monitor outside West Jesmond Primary School, Jesmond
The results from the first school term highlight the impact of the morning school run. The peak value on a weekday occurs between 8am-9am, when the level of pollution doubles (44ug/m3) compared to the background levels in the middle of the night. The levels rise less dramatically for the afternoon run, presumably due to the mix of after-school clubs and different approaches to picking children up at the end of the day.
West Jesmond Primary Hourly mean, NO2 ug/m3, weekdays only during the first half of the 2018 autumn term
What’s really interesting to note is that, on weekdays, the area around West Jesmond Primary is almost as polluted as the A1058 Coast Road. The daily mean value for the Coast Road NO2 during this period was 31.5ug/m3 (measured at the Cradlewell Urban Observatory high precision air monitor). The value for the sensor at WJPS was 30.2ug/m3.
So, what does this mean? It’s important to note that there is nothing illegal about these levels of pollution – the monitor outside WJPS is not a legally designated site, and the annual mean limit set by the EU is 40ug/m3. After a year’s worth of monitoring, it will be possible to compare these levels against the legal limits.
Despite this, the data indicates that the morning rush around Tankerville Terrace effectively doubles the pollution levels and that for the first school term, weekday pollution here was similar to the A1058 at Cradlewell, which is the location of a DEFRA network station, the measurements of which are close to breaking the legal annual limit on NO2, and have done in previous years.
Diesel combustion is also temperature sensitive and many of the pollution removing features are turned off in cold weather and this is true whether the vehicle is moving or idling. It is common to see people idling for periods of time outside the school – likely to keep the heater working – and this produces pollution too. A colder spell could really increase pollution in the area and SPACEforJesmond will continue to monitor this site.
In our view it’s vital that councillors and council officers take action to protect children on the school run by reducing polluting traffic and enabling walking and cycling to school. Children who are driven, some from very close by, are receiving a double-dose of negative health impacts through inactivity and exposure to pollutants. This is being already addressed in schemes elsewhere in the UK – such as Hackney School Streets and Edinburgh School Streets – and Newcastle should follow their lead, as a UNICEF child friendly city, to do what is right for children in Jesmond.
In an open letter to UK Transport Ministers, a group of health and transport specialists have urged Ministers to ditch a “windscreen perspective” and reverse a 42-year decline in children’s mobility.
Writing in the BMJ, the authors note:
“The rhetoric of improving the environment in favour of children’s active travel has been visible for at least two decades but tangible changes have largely been absent from transport planning. We suggest that the time is right to redress the imbalance and give back to today’s children many of the freedoms that older adults recall and benefited from in terms of the levels of independent mobility.”
Of course, it isn’t just a matter of children’s independence and health. The authors highlight the wider benefits to physical and mental health, the public purse and improvements in air quality and travel time that would result from a sensible level of investment in active travel.
With Transport Scotland doubling their investment in active travel, it would be great to think that the rest of the UK will follow suit, especially considering the myriad benefits which come from reduced reliance on motor cars. However, while we puzzle over the lack of investment from Westminster, we need to consider; what can be done right here and now in Jesmond?
After all, we don’t want our kids to end up like Alex.