Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Children back to classroom, drivers back to gridlock

Politicians fumbling over transport problems should look at trips to and from school first

The new school term means traffic chaos will be back on Monday. Photo / Brett Phibbs
The new school term means traffic chaos will be back on Monday. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Enjoy the wide open, uncongested streets while you can for one last day. On Monday the kids come back from their school holidays and the traffic snarl-ups will return.

Two Mondays back, I arrived at my bus stop wondering if Alzheimers had finally set in and I'd departed for work a day early. The usually clogged arterial road I'd just crossed was as empty as a Sunday morning. I'd pressed the pedestrian lights button, then, realising there was nothing coming in either direction, had thrown caution to the wind and sauntered across.

There there, a kindly fellow passenger reassured me as we stood together, admiring the emptiness: There's nothing to worry about. It's the school holidays. And so it has been for the past fortnight. The buses have turned up more or less on time, zapping in and out of town, just like a well-regulated public transport system should perform.

Unfortunately, on Monday, the chaos will return as the mums and dads report for duty as unpaid chauffeurs to their little child emperors.

Auckland Transport says more than half Auckland's 260,000 school kids make the school run by car. Between 2006 and 2010, 57 per cent of primary and intermediate kids were chauffeured back and forth, the percentage dropping slightly to 54 per cent in 2011. By secondary school, a majority of kids had managed to cut the apron strings, but between 2006 and 2010, still 32 per cent depended on their parents for rides, the figure rising to 36 per cent in 2011.

The school run totals about 5 per cent of overall traffic volume, not a huge amount, but enough "cholesterol" in the wrong places to trigger the arterial blockages that slow Auckland traffic for hours at a time.

But instead of turning their minds to ways of weaning our school kids out of the family car and solving the congestion problem, the politicians prefer to dream impossible dreams about extracting billions of dollars of extra cash from our pockets to fund more tracks of tarmac across the Auckland isthmus.

It's true that Auckland Transport, in partnership with the New Zealand Transport Agency, Ministry of Health and the police, launched in 2005 a programme called Travelwise to persuade education facilities and workplaces "to make it easier for people to use sustainable and active modes of transport".

By 2011, a review of Travelwise claimed it had managed to take 12,271 car trips off the road each morning peak. Which is hardly a huge success, given the programme had signed up organisations and schools catering for 226,250 employees and students. Of the morning car trips removed, the school run was reduced by 6251 in 2011 and 9104 in 2012.

The biggest contributor to this reduction was the Walking School Bus programme, which at March 2012 had 264 active walking buses involving 157 schools, 2186 kids and 948 volunteer minders. Walking buses consist of volunteers walking a set route each morning, with kids joining the "bus" as it passes their home. Of course every bit helps, but what Auckland Transport can't deal with, but some brave politician should, is the key issue of school zoning - or more to the point, the weakness of the system.

If kids in the public school system were forced to attend their nearest local school instead of being allowed to shop around town for the year's "in" public school, walking or cycling or catching a local bus would become a viable option for many, and the streets might quickly free up.

Former Labour Party president Mike Williams studied the link between the school run and Auckland traffic congestion while a director of Transit New Zealand.

"What jumped out was there was no congestion during school holidays," he told the Herald on Sunday recently.

"The behaviour of parents who eschew their local school to send their kids to a more distant one is widespread and leads to loss of productivity, pollution and - to stretch the bow - an increase in obesity."

Williams pointed out that "I always went to the closest state school as a kid, and my kids and grandchildren did and do the same. We've all got tertiary qualifications or are headed in that direction. Our schools, whatever decile, are pretty much of a muchness."

The experts back him up. The Education Review Office has noted that the most sought-after, highest-decile primary schools are not always the best schools.

As you stew in Monday's congestion, think about it.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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