Thursday, 22 September 2022
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
13. To ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport the progress to date with the safe-routes-to-school initiative, the best exemplars which have emerged; and if there shall be a new call for participation. [45647/22]
15. To ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport his plans to increase funding to the safe-routes-to-school programme to improve cycling infrastructure on the approach to schools; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46321/22]
As people recount their woes in getting here on a wet morning, and I cycled in, which was grand, spare a thought for commuters on the north side of Dublin who are experiencing the growth pangs of BusConnects and the cycle network, which is of course welcome. It will, however, take a year and a half and will be a challenge.
Last week, the Taoiseach told me, and it was very welcome, that the Minister is working on a national energy resilience plan. That is the context in which I ask this question about the roll-out of safe routes to school. As I understand it, the present scheme accounts for approximately 5% of schools. We need every school in the country looking at not just how it can safely bring children to school, but do so in a way that is more sustainable from an energy and climate perspective. I would like to hear what the plans are for expanding this scheme.
I propose to take Questions Nos. 13 and 15 together.
In March 2021, the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Naughton, and I launched the safe routes to school, SRTS, programme, which aims to support walking, scooting and cycling to primary and post-primary schools and to create safer walking and cycling routes within communities, through the provision of infrastructure interventions.
This should help alleviate congestion at school gates and increase the number of students who walk or cycle to school. Some 931 applications were received from schools across every county in Ireland. On 21 June 2022, 170 schools were notified that they had been selected for inclusion in the first round of the programme. Subsequently, two schools have deferred their applications and one school has withdrawn, leaving 167 schools in the first round. It should be noted that all schools that applied to the original call for applications were accepted into the programme and, if not selected in the first round, will be selected for forthcoming rounds. Some €15 million has been allocated for projects in this round.
In terms of progress to date, 16 schools have had front-of-school measures completed under the programme,13 schools are in the detailed design phase and three are under construction. Some 128 projects are under development or design and seven are involved in statutory processes or are out for public consultation. Separately, 243 schools have also had cycle parking installed under another branch of the safe routes to school, SRTS, programme. Since its launch, approximately €3 million has been spent to date on projects, cycle parking and programme staffing costs.
While all projects so far are great improvements for the schools involved, some exemplars include: An Mhodhscoil in Limerick, which will launch its school street this Friday; Waterford's first school street at Glór na Mara in Tramore; and Bunscoil Rinn an Chabhlaigh in Cobh, whose front-of-school works will be completed at the end of this month and have already resulted in traffic calming.
All schools were eligible to apply to the programme and information was circulated from the Departments of Education and Transport to schools nationwide. As I stated, almost one quarter of schools in Ireland applied and those that have not been included in the first round of funding will not be required to reapply as they will come into the programme on a rolling basis. Due to the overwhelming response, there are no plans for an additional call for schools to join the programme at this time.
While I highly commend this programme and believe it is a great move, there is now a mood among the three quarters of schools that have not applied and the 95% of schools not currently in the programme to look seriously at how they can become safer and more sustainable. Could a lighter scheme be brought in as an immediate measure to capitalise on the fact that people are much more conscious of this matter? Shared safe walking networks and small-scale shelters for bicycles could be introduced. Things could be done that do not require a lot of money or a great deal of designing but which could result in significant changes in behaviour around our schools, both psychologically and in real terms.
There is a great opportunity here, as can be seen from the demand. A great many schools are putting up their hands, eager to lead by example and to address the congestion and chaos outside our primary and secondary schools. It is a positive scheme but greatly oversubscribed. There is a real need to unlock that potential and opportunity. This will require additional funding and a different approach to speed up the process. I appreciate that the process is bottom-up and involved but it will take far too long to deliver at the current rate. There is a need to look at that.
I agree with both Deputies. There is nothing restricting us from carrying out projects outside of this scheme. I think of examples in my constituency of Dublin Bay South. There was a brilliant scheme, presented, as it happens, by a Fine Gael councillor with the support of my Green Party colleagues, to develop a quiet route to link up most of the schools in the suburbs around Ranelagh, Rathmines, Rathgar and down to Sandymount. Unfortunately, it died. It would not have incurred very significant costs. It mainly just involved designating certain roads as quiet roads. It would have been transformative but there was not the political will required in the council to get it over the line. It would not have cost much but it would have been of great benefit as a safe routes to school project.
Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan has put down a question about a similar issue regarding a school in Leap in County Cork that is on a national road. There is an immediate issue there and we cannot wait on a safe routes to school programme to address it. I agree with both Deputies. I have a certain sense of frustration. Only 170 schools out of more than 4,000 are included in the scheme. We need to look at ways to progress through other budgets, including those for the roads programme and local authorities. It is very much an issue for local authorities to consider, as part of their cycling and active transport networks, BusConnects routes and so on, how they can benefit safe routes to school. This should not be the only programme involved because the scale of it is not sufficient to address the urgent need presented on its own.
I welcome what the Minister has said but he needs to move this forward in some way. As Rahm Emanuel said, do not waste a crisis; it is a time to do great things. This is such an opportunity. For example, if there was a simple design manual with low-hanging fruit for schools to consider in their own contexts, that would be a step forward that would cost virtually nothing. Another option is looking to the councils to identify, for example, 50 schools in their areas in which to run seminars. Small things can be done. I was disappointed to learn that the coach service that one of the schools in my area has been running for children is proving not to be viable as a result of rising costs and that there is nowhere it can turn to for assistance. That is a safer option. Another measure could be a simple way to run networks among parents for sharing vehicles. There is a lot of low-hanging fruit but a bit of a kick-start from the Minister's Department and others is required.
There is a very significant opportunity here. Much of what we discuss with regard to climate action is contentious and difficult but here there is a perfect alignment between the wishes, needs and frustrations of people and the solutions that are available. On the solutions, the Government needs to look at the opportunity presented here and to treat our education centres, our primary and secondary schools, as catalysts for climate action as regards going to and from school, school transport, safe routes to school and in the school itself. We need an expansive solar scheme such as that which Sinn Féin will propose in our alternative budget. Our schools should be learning centres and catalysts for climate action. There is a perfect alignment between the needs and wishes of people. If we can properly resource these schemes, that can be delivered on.
I was tickled to hear my own school, Glór na Mara in Tramore, listed among the Minister's exemplars. It is the school I taught in and the one my children attend. The programme has been very successful although it has received pushback. I am delighted to hear Deputy O'Rourke's enthusiasm for school street projects. I very much hope that he is communicating that enthusiasm to his party's local representatives on the ground. However, while the front of schools is becoming much safer with school street projects and the safe routes to school programme, we have to think about schools as active transport nodes and make sure that the routes that radiate from them are safe to travel. The area in front of Glór na Mara National School is exceptionally safe at school drop-off and pick-up times but the approaches on Priest's Road and the Ring Road are not necessarily as safe. We need to broaden our conception of what it means to get kids to our schools using active transport.
I am very glad to hear that Glór na Mara National School in Tramore is leading the way. I agree with the Deputy. It is not just about the area around the local school but also about the routes used to get to that school. The prize here is a freeing up of parents' time if they do not have to drive but also great independence and freedom for children. Whether travelling by bus, on foot or on a bicycle, there is great learning and independence associated with that. It is also about making the traffic system work for everyone.
In Dublin on weeks or days like this, school traffic makes up about 30% of the traffic during morning rush hour. If that 30% is taken out, it frees the roads up for everyone. Everyone knows this as traffic is much lower in the summer. There are so many benefits to this. It is good for traffic management and children's health and it is great for parents. I agree with Deputy O'Rourke that this is one of the ways we should not waste a good crisis, as Deputy Bruton said. There is a moment in time now as we rethink the school transport bus system. The study from the Department of Education must be imminent. We need to look for some of those other easier wins through design manuals and guides so we can change the school transport system in its entirety, not just the bus system.