by Julie D. Johnston
When you walk into a schoolyard or campus that is idle-free, you don’t notice it. You notice birds singing. A flag snapping in the breeze. Maybe the sound of laughter coming from a classroom window or shouts from a physical education class out on the field.
You don’t notice the peace and quiet and the fresh air until somebody absent-mindedly (it must be by mistake, right?) leaves a car running. Then you notice the peace and quiet are broken and the clean air smell is gone.
When you visit Upper Canada College (UCC) in Toronto, Canada, you can hear the birds sing and the flag snap because UCC is idle-free. This K-12 independent boys school developed and adopted a Green School for the 21st Century vision in 2003. Since then, it has been greening its facilities, its curriculum, and the behaviors and habits of everyone in the UCC community: students, faculty, staff, parents and suppliers.
The success of UCC’s idle-free campaign can be traced to their use of background research on impacts of idling, the idling statistics at the school, and several community-based social marketing strategies -- and a whole whack of common sense.
The funny thing about common sense is that sometimes it’s not that common; people don’t know what they don’t know. Parents love their children and would never intentionally harm them, but think nothing of running their vehicles right outside a school, because they haven’t been told not to. Turning common sense into common knowledge was an important step in our campaign.
Car exhausts spew out a noxious combination of toxic chemicals and particulate pollution that can seriously impact our health, and especially the health of our children (who are particularly vulnerable to air pollution because they breathe faster than adults and inhale more air per pound of body weight). Once breathed in, these substances are transported through the bloodstream to all our major organs, causing respiratory and coronary problems. Some are known carcinogens, and some are known to impair mental function.
When Stephanie Foster became the executive director of the school’s Centre for Environment and Sustainability, she organized a campus-wide survey, conducted by the fledgeling Green School Committee, to discover the transportation habits of the UCC community and convey them statistically.
This survey revealed that although 80 percent of students lived within 2.5 miles of the school, 90 percent of them arrived by car each morning. After school, about 75 percent returned home by car. This added up to a lot of traffic on campus, and parents were idling while dropping off
and picking up their children.
The UCC Proud to Be Idle Free campaign was one of the first (and easiest) projects the Green School has taken on. The campaign included the following community-based social marketing tools.
Asking for Commitment
Along with Stephanie (the “Dean of Green”), students created and presented an entertaining information session for the parent organizations on the effects of car idling on children’s health and scholastic achievement. How could these parents not commit to participate? They responded enthusiastically, and announced their commitment to other parents through the community portal on the school website, an administrator’s letter home, and the parents’ listserv.
School buses and delivery trucks turn off their engines now, too, when they come to the school. Drivers visiting for the first time are sometimes bewildered by the request to turn off their engines, but anyone who regularly drives onto campus respects the school’s policy.
Prompts to Help People Remember
In the morning, kids can hop out of the car and grab their school bag in mere seconds. Our biggest idling problem came at the end of the school day, when parents would line up outside the school in their vehicles -- sometimes for quite a wait -- to pick up their children. But people forget. Even when they know they shouldn’t idle, and have joined in on a commitment not to idle, they will sometimes forget to turn their cars off. So UCC put up anti-idling signs, with self-explanatory graphics, where idling parents picked up their children.
Prompts also came from the staff on supervision duty after school. A polite smile and the turn of an imaginary key was usually all it took. In the second year of the campaign, the school started handing out Proud to Be Idle Free stickers for windshields. (These were electrostatic, so as to cling but not stick to windows.) I sensed that the students liked these better than their parents did!
Creating New Social Norms
Just as students are credited with helping to get the recycling habit ingrained, so UCC students (especially the younger ones, and especially members of the Green Club and the EcoAmbassadors) helped create a “new normal” in our parking lot and along our avenue by telling their parents they weren’t supposed to idle. It was easy for parents to look around and see that everyone else waiting had turned their cars off. This became a new social norm at UCC. Not idling had become a conscious “right thing to do” and idlers were the odd ones out. This, in turn, made it easier to spot the idlers and prompt them to turn their cars off.
Recognizing that some parents zoomed into the campus, saw their child, stopped momentarily to pick him up, and quickly left, a special idle-free parking lane was marked off for people who had to stop and wait. It was so convenient and clear and logical, no one had anything to quibble about.
The Green School Committee found numerous ways to tell the UCC community that the campus was an idle-free zone. Apart from the new signage in parking areas, a large banner was hung twice a year by the entrance, usually during homecoming weekend and during Earth Week. Students wrote articles for the Green Report, and the Green School website. In front of the high school hangs a large, colorful banner of car exhaust, morphed into a dragon shrouding some students, which was painted by the Art Club.
When I became UCC’s first coordinator of environment and sustainability programs, I took over the Sustainable Transportation Education Project (STEP). January 2006 was designated Sustainable Transportation Awareness Month at UCC, and we held a raffle for those who walked, bicycled, carpooled or took public transit to school (prizes included one-day family transit passes, pedometers, running shoes, and a weekend rental of a Toyota Prius).
I had a lot of fun designing a UCC car blanket made from recycled soda bottles. (Toronto has cold winters.) These were sold as a fundraiser for the Green School initiative, but also became a great opener for talking to people about our idle-free policy.
My favorite communication activity was getting Green Club members to draw idle-free cartoons, which were sent home periodically in email letters to parents. I was amazed at the students’ ability to capture and express the essence of the issue in one small drawing.
Here is how the Upper Canada College idle-free campus policy was expressed in the Family Handbook:
“Please be aware that as of 2004 our campus has become an idle-free zone. In order to minimize the environmental and health impacts of car exhaust during pick-up, parents are asked to turn off their engines if waiting for more than 10 seconds. We appreciate all efforts to comply with this UCC policy as it supports an environmental undertaking initiated by the students themselves.”
The UCC Proud to Be Idle Free campaign has been a win-win-win-win for the school, the parents, the Toronto airshed, and especially for the students. The Green School students haven’t officially evaluated the success of the project yet, but they don’t have to. They just have to step outside the school at dismissal time and take a deep breath.
Julie Johnston was UCC’s first Coordinator of Environment and Sustainability Programs. She now lives amongst the trees on Pender Island, British Columbia, and can be reached through www.greenhearted.org .
Idling and Climate Change Go Hand in Hand (Natural Resources Canada)
Community Based Social Marketing (McKenzie-Mohr and Associates) http://www.cbsm.com/Chapters/preface.lasso
Upper Canada College Green School http://www.ucc.on.ca/podium/default.aspx?t=7932
Teaching Idling Drivers the Golden Rule – No Idling at School!