Ruth Brandon: Leave The Car At Home, Mum

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Indy Lifestyle Online

I live in a street of enormous late-Victorian houses. Most have been converted into flats, but quite a number are now private prep schools. The result is traffic mayhem. At 8.30 every term time morning, and at 3.30 every afternoon, our otherwise moderately busy road becomes a hooting, shouting nose-to-tail hell of jostling SUVs desperate to take possession of one of the few parking slots, deposit or retrieve their child, and escape before one of the many hovering parking wardens can get them. Few parents budget for a daily parking fine when considering private education costs: disgracefully but not surprisingly, nerves have frayed, and our street is now a blackspot for assaults on wardens.

I live in a street of enormous late-Victorian houses. Most have been converted into flats, but quite a number are now private prep schools. The result is traffic mayhem. At 8.30 every term time morning, and at 3.30 every afternoon, our otherwise moderately busy road becomes a hooting, shouting nose-to-tail hell of jostling SUVs desperate to take possession of one of the few parking slots, deposit or retrieve their child, and escape before one of the many hovering parking wardens can get them. Few parents budget for a daily parking fine when considering private education costs: disgracefully but not surprisingly, nerves have frayed, and our street is now a blackspot for assaults on wardens.

This may be an extreme case, but it's nothing new. 11 years ago my daughter started school in Bedford, a town whose main industry is education, with four large private schools, five state upper schools, two sixth-form colleges, three universities, and countless junior, middle and first schools. We lived 12 miles away, and during term time the traffic jams often began 10 miles out. Timing was hairtrigger: if the school bus left at 7.40, the children got to school at 8.20; if it left at 7.50, they wouldn't arrive until after 9. Every morning, the town was within an ace of gridlock. One disastrous day the local train company decided to discontinue the schoolkids' trains on a local branch line. It was the last straw: the resulting extra cars meant that the whole place seized up, and no one got anywhere until mid-morning. A perfect demonstration of the virtues of rail travel.

In this case the train company quailed before the onslaught from Bedford's combined head teachers, and reinstated the trains. But this is not always possible. Before Beeching, another branch line, from Northampton to Bedford, took in our small town. If it had still been running, our daughter could have left home after 8am instead of 7.30, and still easily arrived at school on time. A move is now afoot to reinstate it, but it's problematic: many of the bridges are now derelict, and some of the land has been sold off.

It's hard to pinpoint the moment when driving your child to school became the norm. Personally, I either cycled or walked, calling for a friend en route. Only one of the children in my class came by car, an event so exceptional that I still remember the registration number. But now no sane parent would let a city kid cycle; and if you want to let a first-schooler walk unsupervised, even in the most tranquil community, you must run the gauntlet of other parents. My daughter knew her way to school from the age of five: it was a 10-minute walk, I crossed her over the biggest road and let her go. "Aren't you frightened?" one outraged mum demanded. What of? Paedophiles behind the hedge? Drivers on the pavement? She didn't, probably couldn't, specify. But her bogey-ridden world is today's norm.

So everyone feels they must accompany young children to school. And how else to do that but by car? "I can't get to school on time without the car," said one mother picking up her child near our house.

What she means, of course, is it's easier. She could get up earlier, and walk or take the bus. But cars change our perception of what is possible, and of what we are entitled to. And it is this mindset that makes the reduction of transport emissions, vital if we are to stop global warming, so problematic.

Meanwhile, here's an idea. Why not make the provision of school buses mandatory for all schools, state or private, that accept children outside a walkable catchment area? That would be safe, reliable, environmentally better than hundreds of individual cars, and less nerve-racking for all. In the private sector, it would be cheaper and less wearing than a daily parking fine. And it might even begin to make local state schools truly local.

motoring@independent.co.uk

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