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Schools Healthy Commutes Project in Westminster

The Schools Healthy Commutes project initiated by Westminster City Council is a proactive response to the prevalent issue of traffic congestion and pollution during peak school hours.

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The Schools Healthy Commutes project initiated by Westminster City Council is a proactive response to the prevalent issue of traffic congestion and pollution during peak school hours. The emphasis is on empowering pupils and parents to explore alternative commuting methods. 

The first cohort of schools were strategically selected due to their high proportion of pupils commuting by car. Using the insights gained from the pilot, the project is expanding to ten additional targeted schools.

A key component of this initiative is the provision of air quality sensors to participating schools. The collected data is made accessible to schools through the council’s Air Quality Data Platform and engaging through lesson plans and assemblies, clearly demonstrating to students, parents and carers the negative environmental impact of car usage. 

The challenge

Although most children in Westminster live within a 20-minute walk from schools, a significant number of parents drive their children to school. This has a detrimental impact to the school’s environment, contributing to dangerous pollutants that worsen air quality and pose a threat to children’s health. Notably, a concerning number of schools in Westminster are situated in areas with high levels of pollution. According to the Greater London Authority, children in London are nearly four times more likely to attend schools in areas where air pollution exceeds the World Health Organisation limit. Air quality sensors have revealed a spike in air pollution during peak school times, at around 9am (drop-off) and 3pm (pick up).

With schools having limited capacity to adopt new agendas, and staff lacking expertise in air quality, Westminster City Council took the lead in pushing collaborative efforts to safeguard the wellbeing of children and mitigate the environmental impact of school communities. 

The solution

In addressing the challenge, Westminster City Council strategically identified schools with the highest car usage levels. Participating schools were equipped with Earth Sense’s Zephyr air quality sensors, strategically placed at drop off and pick up locations. These sensors, capable of near real-time monitoring, track levels of PM2.5, PM10 and NO2 throughout the day. Regular readings, updated as frequently as every minute, are accessible to children and parents through the Westminster air quality platform. The air quality data platform acts as an empowering tool, raising awareness among pupils, parents, and carers regarding the detrimental effects of car usage on air quality. By fostering a better understanding of the connection between transportation choices and pollution, the data serves to instigate behavioural change and reduce reliance on cars for school commuting. 

To effectively communicate the sensor data, Westminster City Council organised engaging assemblies and workshops with pupils, fostering awareness and understanding of air pollution. This approach not only provides a valuable learning opportunity but also actively involves the school community in the endeavour to create a healthier and more sustainable commuting environment.

The impact

The four pilot schools were chosen based on the high proportion of children travelling to school by car. During the pilot phase, a noteworthy reduction in car usage was observed across all four schools, surpassing 20 percent. This achievement translates to annual savings of more than 3.5 tonnes of CO2, signifying a reduction equivalent to more than 90 lungs full of harmful NOx. These tangible outcomes underscored the positive impact of the project, not only in terms of environmental benefits but also in fostering healthier commuting habits. The insights gained from this pilot phase have informed the project's expansion, with plans to include an additional 10 schools—both independent and state schools—where the potential for a significant impact on air quality is substantial.

How is the new approach being sustained?

Sustaining the positive momentum, our commitment is to expand the number of healthy commuting schools and to ensure long term results are achieved at participating schools. To keep schools actively involved, Westminster City Council collaborated with specialist education provider Urbanwise, to develop air quality-themed lesson plans tailored for Key Stage 2 students. These interactive lesson plans not only delve into the dangers of air pollution but also enable students to engage with the air quality data platform and monitor their school's air quality levels.

To enhance the accessibility and transparency of air quality data, Westminster City Council is actively improving the air quality data platform. Future plans include creating a dedicated ‘schools view’ page on the council's website, presenting the data in an age-appropriate and visually engaging manner. This proactive approach aims to empower students with meaningful insights into air quality, fostering environmental awareness.

Lessons learned

  • Trialling the pilot at four schools initially meant we could review the project outcomes without too much initial outlay before deciding to scale up.
  • We found solar powered air quality sensors to be unreliable and therefore changed to electricity following a trial period.


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