Select Page

New Research Pilot: Can Active Travel Improve Air Quality Around Schools?

by | May 10, 2022 | News

County Durham Sport are running a pilot project across eight schools in County Durham, to find out whether Active Travel strategies can improve air quality in the areas immediately surrounding the schools. We spoke to project lead Suzanne McDermott (Infrastructure & Environment Strategic Lead) and Joe Armstrong (Children & Young People Programme Coordinator) to find out more about how they will be evaluating the Active Travel pilot.

What’s the Problem with Air Quality?

Suzanne says, “Poor air quality is an ongoing issue in the UK, particularly in more urban areas: the death of a child in London in 2020 was attributed directly to poor air quality, and during the same summer people were encouraged to stay indoors because of this.”

Promoting active travel within schools is not only for students’ physical and mental health benefits, but also offers a way of addressing climate change and improving air quality.  Addressing air quality issues is part of a wider programme of Active Travel. England now has an Active Travel Ambassador, the Olympic cyclist Chris Boardman, whose department has the capacity to inspect local authorities for evidence of Active Travel spending.

To find out about carbon emissions (which affect air quality) in your area, you can use the free Place Based Carbon Calculator Tool.

What is the Active Travel Pilot in County Durham?

The pilot scheme is running in eight schools across County Durham. Four are secondary, four are primary, and all are part of a single academy trust. The schools are in both rural and urban locations. Schools are not committed to a specific participation period, though May is National Walking Month, and Walk to School Week is during the week beginning 16th May.

Participating schools have received information packs from Asthma & Lung UK, and Clean Air Champions are available to work with schools on ideas for improving air quality, such as pupils walking or cycling to school, or parents parking further away from school gates. The Clean Air Champions help address issues such as parents letting car engines idle close to playgrounds when picking up or dropping off children at school. Clean air studies in London have resulted in behaviour change and, in some instances, have led to cars being banned from streets around schools.

Suzanne notes that, “as schools are already overstretched and focusing on the core curriculum, this scheme has to be as easy as possible to deliver.”  The pilot will explore whether schools and parents engage with the programme, and how many people sign up to Active Travel commitments.

How Will We Evaluate the Success of the Pilot?

As well as monitoring school, pupil and parent engagement with the Active Travel initiatives, we will directly measure air quality. Using affordable ‘diffusion tubes’ sourced by Durham County Council’s Air Quality Officer, we can measure air quality before and after the Active Travel intervention. We place the tubes outside schools for two weeks at the end of April/start of May 2022, then send them away for analysis so that schools know what their current air quality is. The tubes are replaced for another two weeks following promotion of clean air strategies, and the two results will be compared and shared with the schools.

Two schools will act as ‘controls’. They will not be visited by Clean Air Champions, but will have their air quality measured using diffusion tubes. It’s important to measure whether air quality at these control sites does indeed differ from air quality at schools who make clean air changes during the pilot.

How Will We Share the Learning from this Project?

Suzanne and Joe will share the findings from the pilot project with partners in due course.


Article by Clare Danek (Insight and Engagement Officer, County Durham Sport)