The Ministry of Education – Greater Auckland

COVID-19 Response Minister, Chris Hipkins, volunteered fodder for jokes yesterday, when he stumbled on an unfortunate combination of “spread their wings” and “stretch their legs.”

Chuckles aside, what was no laughing matter was his perverse transport advice:

It is a challenge in higher density areas for people to get outside and to spread stretch their legs when they are surrounded by other people, and so in some cases it might be more sensible for them to drive a short distance to get to somewhere where they can be further from other people.

People need to be able to walk and bike around with plenty of road space for social distancing – without fear of being hit by vehicles. The last thing that those living in higher density areas need is any messaging from the Minister that increases vehicle travel in their neighbourhoods!

While I’m sure the Minister didn’t intend to worsen the safety environment for people out getting their vital exercise, the comment was far from aligned with the Government’s key strategic transport priorities. A truly robust public health response requires focusing on the needs of people travelling actively, and involves widespread road reallocation – in both urban and suburban areas. There are major public health and environmental implications of the Government’s failure to tackle this last year (which we’ll post about soon).

It is worrying that the problems seem to stem from the Minister being stuck in a car dependent mindset.

Minister Hipkins is also the Minister of Education.

Is it Minister Hipkins’ mindset that is preventing school transport policy from improving, too? The Ministry could make key changes in:

  • Design of School Buildings, Grounds and Amenities,
  • Advocacy and Education
  • Travel planning for staff and students

Around the world, cities have made schools a key part of their decarbonisation and climate adaptation plans.

New schools are being designed for car dependence.

I have written on this topic before, showing the many ways the Ministry of Education could help to enable children to travel actively, improving their health and opportunities to learn, and setting them up for life-long healthy travel habits. I’ve explained that the Ministry of Education has:

  • No policies for reducing transport carbon emissions in ways the Ministry can influence, such as good school property design and guidelines for day-to-day operations
  • No policy about encouraging students and staff to shift away from car travel towards healthier low-carbon options,
  • Received no instructions to prioritise walking and cycling in the design of its properties,
  • Received no instructions to reduce transport carbon emissions.

Why? And why did the Government (which claims to be focused on climate action, children’s wellbeing, and road safety) not use the Education and Training Act 2020 to help address these issues?

Children boarding a Department of Education school bus, probably travelling between Paemako and Piopio School. Taken between 1924-1925. Ref: 1/1-004539-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22374085

No Mandate for Change

Last year, a petition was presented to parliament about the problem of insufficient school bus services for rural areas. School buses are generally only provided for children living beyond a “walkable distance” of 5 km from school (or from any available public transport to school). For children under 10, this distance is 3 km. The trouble is, these roads aren’t safe, and shouldn’t be considered “walkable”. The rule originated in the very early 1900’s, when roads were safe enough for children to walk, bike or ride horses. As motor vehicle traffic increased in volume and speed, the country’s options were to:

  • improve the roads with parallel safe networks for walking and riding,
  • increase our provision of public and school transport services to ensure no one had to walk or ride on the open road, or
  • a combination of these in different places, depending on population density.

Instead, our roads became dangerous for anyone not in a motor vehicle, and rural children were stripped of all safe independent travel options.

Today, the anachronistic rule about eligibility for school transport reduces the direct cost to taxpayers, but adds overall costs to the nation, because many parents have to fill the gap by driving children to school in many cars. One bus picking up multiple students and driven by one driver would be more efficient in terms of human and transport resource. The situation also:

  • increases emissions,
  • increases traffic danger for children who are walking or cycling in the “town” areas closest to the school, and
  • eliminates independent mobility for the children, with many negative effects, including unhealthy reliance on parents’ time and current driving license status.

With population growth in some areas, demand for the school buses has risen, meaning children have had to give up the seats they were filling to others living further out.

In a NZ Herald article in February, a Ministry official was quoted as saying:

There is no current mandate to change the school transport policy

Well that piqued my interest!

Years of resorting to cones to try to improve pedestrian safety.

I asked the Ministry:

There are many ways this mandate could be found to already exist if the Ministry cares to look. For example, our Road to Zero policy, our Zero Carbon Act, and international obligations such as the 2020 Stockholm Declaration are obviously material to the decision about whether children have a right to a school bus if their only options are to walk along an egregiously unsafe road or to create unnecessary carbon emissions by being driven.

There will be human rights and equity laws, too…

Could you please provide me with all correspondence from the Ministry of Education to government:

  • requesting direct instruction to the Ministry to reduce transport emissions
  • requesting direct instruction to the Ministry to provide school buses for any child who has to walk along a rural road that lacks safe walking infrastructure
  • requesting direct instruction to the Ministry to ensure every child has a safe journey to school.

The Ministry needs to reconsider if they really need an overt mandate from government before they can act responsibly on providing better transport options for children. But if they decide they do, it’s important they ask for such a mandate.

Let’s squeeze the kids in between the moving and the parked cars.

On the 31st March I received a reply

Advice tendered to Ministers can be in response to a request from the responsible Minister, or alternatively, it can be initiated directly by Government departments themselves. The Ministry of Education has not initiated advice which has sought a direct instruction from the Government on any of the three areas of your request.

The Age of School Buses

The Ministry proactively provided me with a briefing to Ministers Chris Hipkins and Jenny Salesa in September 2019, about the school bus tender process.

The document shows the Ministry had recommended – as a proxy for bus emissions standards – that operators should be required to use slightly younger buses, with a maximum bus age of 23 – instead of 26 as is currently the case – and that a maximum average bus age of 15 years in each operator’s fleet be introduced:

The requirement would have added 15% to the school bus tenders:

But the Ministers had declined the request:

As a result, the mandatory bus age requirements couldn’t be used:

(The briefing covers other aspects, too, such as the difficulties created for the bus operators and the Ministry when the message from Government changes mid-process.)

In other words, the Minister’s lack of support meant the latest set of school transport contracts could not encourage operators to replace their oldest buses. This is hardly ideal from a safety OR carbon-reduction perspective.

Sustainable Travel to School

I wondered if Ministry staff were trying to achieve more profound systems changes regarding travel to school and if so, if the Minister had responded in a more satisfactory way?

Dear Ministry of Education,

Thank you for that example. What I am trying to understand is whether the Ministry has communicated concerns to the Minister on how current MoE policy contributes to current negative transport outcomes. Policy on transport, staff benefits, modeshift, school design, systems, school buses, operations and land use could be altered to improve outcomes in traffic safety, physical activity levels, mental health and carbon emissions…

Please provide me with any advice the Ministry of Education has given the Minister about policy or the need for policy on the following subjects:

  • reducing transport emissions from journeys to school in the wider transport system (ie the travel by students, families, teachers and staff, not just school buses or Ministry fleet vehicles);
  • better school design to create modeshift for students and staff from driving to active or public transport;
  • reducing staff car parking provision in order to reduce driving;
  • providing staff subsidies to bikes, e-bikes or bus fares to enable modeshift;
  • improving safety for children and staff whose access to school is via a rural road that lacks safe walking and cycling infrastructure
  • improving safety for children and staff whose access to school is on urban streets that are insufficiently safe for parents to allow their children to walk or cycle to school;
  • improving traffic safety for children in the transport system and in and around schools, via changes in land use, school design, school systems, operations, advocacy to road controlling authorities;
  • improving students’ mental health with MoE transport policy changes…
How about not having a driveway and carpark at all, if it takes so much space the path for walking, scooting, wheelchairs and bikes ends up being this narrow?

I later clarified:

I’m wanting to understand whether the Ministry of Education is

  • already doing a body of policy work on this topic
  • recommending changes but meeting resistance from other parts of government
  • doing little to seek improvements / comfortable with the status quo…

I would appreciate any advice on modifying the request to reduce the Ministry workload or to better capture the information I’m after.

I received this reply on the 24th May, which was copied to the Minister of Education Chris Hipkins.

In short, my question was not answered. The reply includes a paragraph about the school bus procurement issue, although more detail had already been given in the briefing I linked above. The bulk of the reply is a long section about the climate change curriculum in schools, which was not something I asked about. And finally:

With regard to your questions regarding public health, these should be directed to the Ministry of Health as they are best placed to respond. You can contact the Ministry of Health at [email protected]

Advocacy to the road controlling authorities by the Ministry of Education could involve requests for better intersection designs.

In summary

  1. The Minister of Education declined to approve the pre-Budget commitment which would have led to a requirement for younger school buses.
  2. Nobody seems to be addressing the problem of insufficient school buses on higher demand rural routes where the population has increased, and where no distance can be considered “walkable” due to traffic danger.
  3. The Ministry of Education did not answer my Official Information Act question, but it’s probably safe to assume:
  4. The Ministry of Education has not advised the Minister why transport policy matters, in terms of either student wellbeing and learning outcomes, or wider public health and environmental outcomes. Nor does it appear the Minister has given any direction on the topic.

The children of Aotearoa have been demanding the Government act on climate change. One major change they need is in our transport system, on a grand scale. The Ministry of Education can be a major player, stepping up to fill a guiding role on reducing transport emissions involved with ‘travel to education’ – in the same way they have stepped up to relieve unpaid school board trustees from carbon-counting obligations. Using good property design, staff contracts, transport policy, travel planning and parking management, the Ministry would be contributing to a climate action which would directly benefit and empower our children right now.

Minister Hipkins, we need you to sort this out:

Expand your thinking, and take responsibility for helping our children gain the option to travel – independently, sustainably and safety.

New school layouts encourage driving and discourage active travel.
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