Open Streets for school kids
Merri-bek City Council and Bicycle Network trials
“I ride to school because I like riding.”
This statement by 7-year-old Loukas might seem normal, but it actually makes him extraordinary.
Just 3% of Melbourne primary school students ride bikes to school, and 20% walk. The remainder— nearly 75% — are driven by car. [i]
The picture is healthier at Merri-bek Primary School in Coburg, where just over 50% of kids walk or ride (44% are driven). A survey conducted by the local council found just 6% of the school’s students would choose to go to school by car if given their way.
Merri-bek Primary School student Lillian, 6 (pictured), told Victoria Walks; “Sitting in the car is really boring. You don’t do anything!”
Her friend Loukas added “Cars only carry a few people, and they use petrol”.
Their comments are a frank reminder that Melbourne’s transport culture isn’t working for everyone, especially primary school age children, who make up 10% of Victoria's population. [ii]
But an innovative behaviour change program run by Loukas’ council is empowering communities to turn the streets surrounding schools into spaces where children feel safe to move themselves.
Councils leading change
The idea to create a safe, encouraging space for families to try walking and riding has been a remarkable success. During the Open Street trials, active transport rates to the five schools increased from an average of 50% to 70%.
In 2023, Merri-bek City Council plans to work with four new schools, and City of Stonnington is also running the program with Bicycle Network in Malvern.
Inspired by the United Kingdom’s School Streets, the trials “open” the street outside a participating school’s main gate “to walking, riding, scooting and play without car traffic” during school drop-off and pick-up times.
Residents and those with accessibility needs retain access to the street, escorted by traffic management staff. Families that need to drive are provided with alternative parking locations a little further away from the school gate and can walk or ride the last part into the Open Street.
Merri-bek City Council’s Program lead Zoe McMaster found while 85% of families lived within 2km of their school, half were driving.
Supporting families to make new transport choices
Zoe says the Open Streets trials act as a “circuit breaker”, challenging some of the assumptions that underpin family transport choices, and allowing parents to see the benefits of active travel to their childrens' health [ii], happiness and independence.
Merri-bek Primary School parent Arief Raysid loaned an e-cargo bike as part of Merri-Bek’s Ride & Stride program, and began using it during the school’s Open Street trial. Arief and his daughters Zaradine and Marigold ended up switching from driving to riding each day for five weeks in Term 4.
Initially concerned about the speed and volume of cars on some legs of the 1km journey to school, Arief says he felt comfortable to take his daughters on the e-bike.
"[The girls] think riding is much more fun [than driving],” he told Victoria Walks. “They asked me to hire the bike for longer.”
Prior to the trials, Ride & Stride surveys revealed ‘concern about traffic safety between home and school’ was a top reason families drove to school.
But Merri-bek City Council's Zoe McMaster says Open Streets showed parents their streets aren’t inherently unsafe. “It is often car traffic that makes streets feel unsafe.”
This is not a moot point.
Recent data reveals one-quarter of vehicle trips in metropolitan Melbourne beginning between 8-9am are to a primary or secondary school [iv] while afternoon pick-up time is when the most crashes occur.
To state the obvious, parents can play a big part in making streets safer by leaving the car at home.
Merri-bek City Council is talking to principals and school councils about ongoing, school-led models. It's first school-led Open Street launches at Coburg North Primary School in March 2023.
While speed reductions and traffic-calming infrastructure can also help increase walking and cycling, Zoe says projects like Open Streets are a worthy step for councils.
“Behaviour change [programs] are often undervalued or seen as tokenistic, but they are an important piece of the transport puzzle ... It’s about working with schools and the community to change the hearts and minds of people when it comes to transport choices. Then you begin to see more people asking for and using the infrastructure that supports walking and cycling …”
Bicycle Network’s Ride2School Program Manager Manon Dolet said Merri-bek's 2021-2022 trials helped Open Streets gather momentum.
“Seven councils have enquired about organising Open Streets in 2022-2023,” Ms Dolet told Victoria Walks. “Five of these are metropolitan councils and two are in regional Victoria.”
For his part, Merri-bek Primary School student Loukas says the street behind his school should remain “open” permanently.
“Cars drive through here and they block the road,” he said.
“A lot of kids on bikes ride here and they could get squashed.”
Perhaps the best road safety action Victoria could take is to give kids like Loukas a voice in transport planning. After all, streets designed with children in mind are safer for all users!
- See a video about Merri-bek’s Open Street trials here.
- See the results of all Open Streets trials in Melbourne at the bottom of this page
- Merri-bek's Ride & Stride program won an award in December 2022
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