When it comes to School Streets, The Hague has been in the spotlight recently. First in 2019, when we organized our first School Street trial, and again now that we have rolled out 15 more School Streets to enable pupils and their parents to travel to the school gates safely. To me, this is the ultimate application of "Never let a crisis go to waste", as we have instantly scaled up the School Street concept in a time of crisis when it was urgently needed.
School Streets are an international phenomenon par excellence. After they originated in Bolzano, Italy, they were adopted in many European countries in the 2000s and 2010s. And recently, both The Hague and Auckland, New Zealand, have experimented with them.
I first found out about the School Street concept in 2017, when I was living in Leuven, Belgium. I discovered that many streets in Flemish cities are closed to motorized traffic temporarily, when the children are being brought to school, or picked up from school. I was an instant fan of this concept and I admire the Flemish policymakers for having succeeded in making the areas around schools safe. Because in school areas, it isn't the child on a bike who creates a sense of unsafety. It isn't the parent who walks their child to school. It's almost always the parent (or other driver) in a car who creates a sense of unsafety, which so many parents complain about. Only when you take the car out of the street do people truly feel safe when they are walking or cycling to school. In such a situation, more people will make the decision to walk or cycle to school instead of driving.
At the same time, I found it odd that we didn't do this (yet) in The Netherlands. Why do we still allow cars near our schools during the school rush hours? That was unacceptable to me. Fast forward to January 2019 when I started working at the City of The Hague's Department of Mobility. I started talking about the idea of organizing a School Street in The Hague. And my department and my coworkers were very supportive of the idea, although I also had to convince a few people. Of course that's to be expected when you come up with an idea that seemed very different than anything we had done in school areas until then.
It also helps that we have an Alderman for Mobility in The Hague (Robert van Asten) who takes road safety very seriously, and who expects us to do everything we can to improve it. Quite quickly, we found a location for our trial, the Abeelstraat. We already had been receiving reports from parents about how they perceive the situation around the school's rush hours as unsafe, so it seemed like a perfect place to try out a School Street. We organized a trial that ran for two weeks. We got a lot of interest from other cities and from the media.
Our trial in the Abeelstraat has taught us a lot on how to apply the School Street concept in The Hague. Whilst the Abeelstraat itself was very safe during the trial, we also observed that congestion in the immediate surroundings got worse (and it was never very congestion-free to begin with). And so, for our second trial, we began to look for a robust neighbourhood where such problems wouldn't occur. We had our eyes on the Oeverwallaan in the suburban district of Ypenburg. Here, we were organising a School Street trial for the two schools that share a building on this street. There is also a parking lot close to the schools (servicing a nearby hockey club), so that we were in a better position to close the street to motorized traffic. Those parents who would normally drive to one of the schools had an alternative, so that they don't need to drive through the Oeverwallaan. We were also planning to let the trial run for a longer time (two months) than the first one, in order to get parents and pupils to really change travel habits.
Then the corona crisis hit us. We were supposed to start the second trial in May. With the schools closed, we postponed that to September. Things were on hold.
With the announcement that schools would open up again on 11 May, our department started proactively investigating all 189 elementary schools in The Hague and their surroundings. We considered how easy it would be for people to maintain 1.5m of distance when they would go back to school. And we divided the schools into three categories:
- Schools where no problems are foreseen;
- Schools were some problems are foreseen, which can be solved relatively easily by the school or by us;
- Schools were keeping distance will be problematic due to a lack of space.
We reached out to these schools and asked them how they felt about closing their streets to traffic during the school rush hour. Most schools appreciated the idea. And so, we got to work and organized a further 15 School Street trials in the city. Initially, we expected that we needed to implement 30 new School Streets, but in some cases the schools told us they weren't necessary.
So far, we've gotten positive feedback from the schools. Things seem to be going well. Some schools are already asking us if we can make it permanent! The crisis has really accelerated the rollout of this road safety concept. We're learning how to apply the School Street measure in our local context at a record-breaking speed. Hopefully, soon we will know a lot more on how and when it's best to organize a School Street! In the meantime, we're looking for a way to fund these initiatives in a structural way.