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Road safety Fame academy

Highways - When three inner London schools merged to become a flagship 'Business Academy' there was just one problem - getting there safely. Mark Hansford reports.

When prime minister Tony Blair stood on the steps of the all-new Bexley Business Academy in September 2002 and declared 'I have seen the future of British education and this is it, ' few would have disagreed.

Symbolising a radical change in teaching concepts, the building is stunning. Inside, students benefit from leading edge IT facilities and even a mini stock market designed to give an authentic and relevant view of finance, commerce and 21st century industry.

Every Friday is devoted to businessrelated studies.

But outside, there was one huge problem - a two lane dual carriageway of almost motorway standard, completely dividing the academy from the community it serves. A classic example of 1970s urban design, the concept of Yarnton Way was to completely segregate pedestrians from other traffic.

Pedestrians were originally intended to use high level walkways and footbridges. But over the years most pedestrians have chosen to walk and cross at ground level for convenience or through fear of crime.

Inevitably there are accidents.

In the three years to 2003, 36 were recorded, two of them fatal.

Something clearly had to be done to improve safety, and with the academy set to expand into primary teaching in September 2004 it had to be done fast.

'We had the [governmentbacked] Safer Routes to School programme, but not in that timescale, ' says Bexley Council assistant group engineer for traffic and road safety Spencer Palmer.

Fortunately, the council proved up to the task, and a £430,000 scheme was largely implemented in time for the opening of the Primary Academy. The finishing touches are now being applied.

First stage in the process was to determine the routes taken by pupils and to gauge opinion on where the road dangers and personal security risks lay.

Questionnaires were sent to parents, pupils and staff and over 500 responses received.

Consultant scough Associates was brought in to analyse responses and build a feasibility study. It was immediately apparent that the main concerns related to Yarnton Way.

'Pedestrians were completely segregated, ' says Ascough & Ass ociates boss William Ascough. 'People used to blast along at 60mph. You can't do that now.' To cut speeds the proposed scheme centred around the introduction of four small roundabouts. A toucan crossing would replace the 1960s high level walkway, and the dual carriageway next to the school would be reduced to a single lane in each direction.

Detailed designs were worked up by consultant Waterman Aspen and contractor was TE Beach.

'It's a major road so we were limited in traffic management options, ' explains Bexley Council project manager Gordon Kiley.

'Speed humps are unpopular with emergency services and bus operators. But we had space for roundabouts.' But there was one major problem. Transport for London (TfL) was providing £150,000 funding, but 'as soon as we saw the scheme, we realised that the TfL funding was not sufficient', says Palmer. 'We wanted to provide a worthwhile scheme and it would have been wrong to go at it half-heartedly. So we made various applications to TfL and they came good.' TfL stumped up an extra £220,000 to cover the local safety scheme and cycling improvement elements of the proposals. Direct council funding provided and additional £60,000.

Early indications are that speeds are down and the council is quietly confident that accidents will fall as a result. 'I can't think of another borough which has a dual carriageway severing a school from most of the students. But with a limited budget and a bit of innovation we have transformed the road, ' says Palmer.

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