Parking and traffic chaos around ACT schools attracted the attention of the media last term, with reports of cars being driven on the wrong side of the road and double parking obscuring children and school crossing flags and blocking residents' driveways.
Most schools affected
At Council's Hot Topics meeting in June, we followed up on the issue and found that nearly all the schools represented at the meeting reported parking problems or difficulties with set-down and pick-up. Only the newer schools seem to have avoided the problem.
"Since many ACT schools were built, there have been substantial changes in our lifestyles," said Council President Viv Pearce. "Children are more likely to attend schools further from home and often both parents are working, so many more children are being driven to school than, say, a few decades ago."
"Newer schools have been planned with this in mind, but our older schools and the roads around them are not coping well."
Problems reported at the meeting included unsafe car parks and roads, people travelling too fast, insufficient parking or pull-over bays and roads that were not wide enough. Several people at the meeting had witnessed traffic accidents or near-misses involving children at their school.
''We can't take our eye off the ball with this one because the worst could happen and a child gets knocked over. I'm not saying it is going to happen tomorrow, but we need to continue our work in this area — looking for solutions and advocating for improved safety," said Ms Pearce.
Lobbying for change
Council has lobbied the government over the last three years and some steps have been taken including police targetting infringements around schools, enlarged car parks, additional pull-off bays, more school crossings and changes to signage around schools.
Council will continue to represent parents by raising traffic problems with both local Ministers concerned, and continues to lobby for appropriate school bus routes through our representative on the ACT Government's school transport liaison committee.
Council members also work on committees planning new schools to ensure practical traffic arrangements, adequate car parking and good pedestrian and bike access to schools at the planning stages.
The issue is a complex one and there is no single solution. Certainly, no one group is to blame. Council believes that the solution lies partly with road-traffic measures and partly with changes in behaviour.
"We can't expect a school of 500 students to provide parking for every family. Fewer students arriving at school by car is a crucial part of the solution,'' said Ms Pearce. "Some practical solutions include increasing participation in walk-to-school programs, parents dropping off their children a block or two away from school, and better school buses.
"These need to be combined with appropriate traffic measures such as flashing lights at crossings and pull-over bays on roads surrounding our schools. We would like to see parents involved in finding the right traffic solution for any school's problems."
"A network of convenient school buses is obviously going to help alleviate traffic pressures around schools," Ms Pearce noted.
Having adequate school buses is important for all schools. Unfortunately, in the ACT at present, public schools are not as well catered for by buses as private schools. Most private schools survey their students on their intent to travel by bus and provide this information to ACTION to ensure that their students' travel needs are met. Council would like to see this extended to public schools.
"We would like the Education Directorate to survey public school students for their intent to travel by bus and provide this information to ACTION the way that private schools do. At the moment, buses are provided to public schools based on the number who use them already. This does not allow for those who might use a bus if a more convenient route existed," said Ms Pearce.
"If the Government is serious about easing traffic difficulties, then they need to be more proactive about getting people out of cars and onto buses and surveying intent at the time of enrolment would be a good place to start."
ACTION's new bus network will start on September 1 and there will be many changes to school bus routes. Changes are detailed on the ACTION website and there is a dedicated school bus hotline: 62055033. Council has recently been informed of a new review of school services to be conducted in November. We are looking for delegates to represent parents at the review. Representatives will be chosen at the next Council meeting on August 26.
Ride or walk
Canberra has one of the most extensive networks of pedestrian and cycling paths in Australia, so we are well placed to encourage children to safely walk, ride, scoot or skateboard to school.
One program which encourages families to get their kids to school without the car is the Ride or Walk to School initiative run by the Physical Activity Foundation in collaboration with the Education and Training Directorate and ACT Health. The program is free of cost to schools and is designed to drive culture change within the school community around riding or walking to school. It includes free bikes and helmets for the school, teacher training and resources, student workshops and parent resources.
Schools can also hold special walk or ride to school days which might correspond to National Ride2School Day (held in March every year), Walk Safely to School Day (aimed at primary students in May each year) or the new Avanti Ride Safe to School Day (a new ACT-wide event in term 4). These events include resources to encourage students to participate. A certificate or sticker or the chance to win a bike-related raffle prize can encourage some to be involved. Some schools or P&Cs increase the incentive by approaching local businesses for additional prizes such as water bottles or an ice-cream voucher, and have increased participation in these events.
Walking to school can be relaxing and fun, especially in a group, and special walk to school days can give students a taste for this and lead to regular commuting on foot or by bike.
A range of traffic measures can be considered at schools with persistent problems. Any solution needs to be tailored to the school and community. Council has gathered more information on the problems which exist for our schools and the solutions which parents favour with a survey so that we can represent parent concerns to government. We are currently analysing the results of our survey.
Update! Survery results now complete.
This article appeared in ParentACTion, Term 3, 2014. See other past editions of our quarterly magazine.