Dublin in September can shock the system. Quiet early mornings and lazy summer evenings come to a sudden halt. What follows is not so pleasant.
Streets of the city and suburbs choke once more with frustrated commuters. The back-to-school congestion is coupled with a general sense of chaos. Why is it that once the schools are back, the roads come to a standstill?
It’s simple really. Alongside the return of the workforce after the holidays, we are driving our children to school in alarming, and increasing, numbers. The biggest proportion of trips in Ireland are people travelling to work or school. They take place at the same time in the morning, contributing to enormous traffic problems.
In 1986, only 24 percent of primary-school kids were driven to school in Ireland. Now that figure is 60 percent. This stands in sharp contrast to some of our nearest neighbours. In England, 44 percent of 5–10 year olds are driven to school, while in Finland and Norway, the figures drop to about half these rates.
As one would expect, the numbers are better in urban areas, where accessibility is higher. But the trends are all wrong. In the Dublin City Council area, 36 percent of kids are driven to school, but this rises to nearly 50 percent in South Dublin and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown.
It’s not just an inconvenience. All those cars are making our city a toxic and unpleasant place to live. They’re also making our streets even less safe for those who are walking and cycling. Our children grow more obese due to lack of physical activity and lose their ability to travel independently. The kind of freedom that children growing up in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s had is a distant memory.
Why are so many children being driven to school rather than walking or cycling, even in urban areas? Research shows many possible reasons including: distance to school; some parents needing to drive on afterwards to work; even poor weather. Habit or convenience and traffic-safety fears, though, are two of the biggest reasons – and ones we know how to tackle.
In Dublin, most of our schools, particularly primary schools, are accessible to local populations. So change is possible.
Anyone who lives near a school or takes part in the daily school-run knows the bedlam at drop-off. Hundreds of kids descend upon slivers of footpaths to be met with double-parked kerb-mounting vehicles squeezing between orange plastic bollards, and long lines of idling engines pump pollutants into the air for all to breathe.
Surely there must be a better way?The Green Schools programme is effective at targeting habit and traffic-safety fears. Many schools have embraced its “Walk on Wednesdays” campaign, showing that changing our habits alone can make a big difference to the numbers transferring from car to foot. Some schools have travel plans that encourage parents to keep their cars away from the school gates.
Local authorities are starting to reduce speed limits to more child-friendly levels, but enforcement is lacking and 30km/hr speed limits often need to be coupled with traffic calming to be effective.
“Safe routes to school” are another powerful approach, but we are yet to see many of these on the ground in Ireland. These strategically developed, high-quality, child-friendly walking and cycling links connect key residential areas with schools.
There are other quick – and inexpensive – solutions. “School streets” are car-free zones around schools at drop-off and pick-up times, which free up space for children to get to and from school safely and in comfort without being squeezed into an ever-diminishing street space.
Others are thinking bigger. An entirely car-free school is being planned in Leeds, England. It’s food for thought and part of a wider movement for low-traffic neighbourhoods, where whole communities can benefit from a change in how we design local streets.
While Dublin, and Ireland, might be far behind some of our European neighbours, the solutions are at hand. It is by no means too late to change. But we need vision and leadership – from the state, and from local authorities, but also critically from schools and parents.
The chaos might erupt every September, but it lingers for most of the year. We can continue to accept it, or ask ourselves whether we can learn from other countries and make our cities safer, healthier and more enjoyable places to live.