June 9, 2022

Want Your Child to Learn in School? Get Rid of Traffic Noise. It’s Time to Expand “School Streets”

It used to be that apartments and multi-family units were located near major roads for ease of transportation.  It has been proven that being close to highways with vehicular carbon emissions and brake dust is probably the worse location for families. No one thought about the impact of noise on children.

This study published in PLOS Medicine  looked at 2,700 children between the ages of seven and ten in 38 schools in Barcelona Spain. The purpose of the study was to see if there was an impact on traffic noise on how children develop cognitively over time, and to ascertain whether learning is impacted at the times of the most road noise.

The findings of the research are troubling: children exposed to triple the amount of vehicular traffic on roadways were 23 percent slower in cognitive development and had less attention spans, five percent slower in a year.

Internationally traffic noise has not been substantially identified or researched as a health factor in cognitive learning. Viewpoint Vancouver has been writing about the health challenges of traffic in terms of asthma and breathing conditions, including the death of a student in London directly linked to vehicular carbon emissions.

As Damian Carrington writes in the Guardian, “Noise is the second most damaging environmental factor to health, after air pollution, and, for example, was already known to increase heart attacks and diabetes in adults. The UN said in February that urban noise pollution was growing into a “global public health menace”, leading to 12,000 early deaths a year in the EU alone, and affecting many cities from Bangkok to New York.”

This study shows that noise can also impact cognitive development by producing a physiological reaction in basic memory and focus skills for young children, and is more damaging in the school setting than at the home.

This implies that it is important to locate primary schools away from busy intersections and buffer them  against traffic noise. While there are estimates that 20 percent of children in the European Union are impacted by traffic noise, this won’t decrease with the move to electric vehicles. Electric vehicles can reduce noise by moving slower. At city posted speeds of 40 to 50 km/h, noise from tires is similar for all vehicles no matter how they are powered.

There are equity issues as well, as schools in poorer or older neighbourhoods are usually located near busy roads.  It may be time to adopt true School Streets, which were piloted in Great Britain to make the last few blocks to school a car free experience.

In Edinburgh Scotland six schools have created exclusionary zones for blocks around the schools. The project called “School Streets” bans cars  from the streets an hour before school has commenced to an hour after school is over to encourage a safer environment and to encourage children to walk and cycle to school. An initiative of the City of Edinburgh’s City Council, the ban also alleviated congestion and pollution levels at the school sites.

Vancouver has a weaker version of the European model, allowing  only one  car-free block beside a school for pick up and drop off of children, usually only half an hour or an hour a day. This is currently being piloted in five Vancouver schools for a very short time period, from May 5 to June 9.

A survey of participants in the Vancouver program found that 29 percent of families drove less, and 32 percent of families walked more, with 76 percent of families wanting school streets to continue. You can read that report here.

I would argue it is time for to prioritize children’s learning and ability to access schools without worrying about vehicular traffic for mental and physical health, as well as the cognitive learning  reasons just explored in the Barcelona study.

Vehicle accessibility should never be prioritized over children’s safety and learning. Expand the safe streets program in Vancouver and in the metro area  to surround the schools during ALL  school hours, and mitigate traffic interference, noise and pollution. It is really the twenty-first century thing to do.

Below is a short video on Vancouver’s School Streets Pilot.



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