Walking or biking to school is making a little comeback in one traffic clogged neighbourhood in North Vancouver. On a sleepy Friday morning in late April a steady parade of kids and parents, accompanied by the mayor and local councillor, on foot and on bike, streamed down the boulevard sidewalks on their way to Canyon Heights Elementary School. The festive “Freedom Friday” public event has become a hit with families and has helped to spike the numbers of kids walking or biking to school.
Parent groups like the North Vancouver North Shore Safe Routes Advocates have been front and centre in a “movement afoot” in North American cities and towns to reclaim school communities from the “me-first car culture.” Community wellness and active transportation advocacy groups are springing-up, mostly in cities, in places as diverse as Hamilton, Ontario, and Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The proportion of people who use active transportation – getting around without the use of a car – has been on a steady decline for decades and it’s particularly evident in and around local schools. ParticipAction’s 2015 report card on children’s physical activity gave Canada’s kids a D-minus for the third consecutive year. Fifty-eight per cent of today’s parents walked to school when they were kids. Only 28 per cent of their kids walk today.
The streets around our local schools become totally gridlocked when, in the words of a recent Toronto Globe and Mail editorial, “legions of dutiful, well-meaning parents perform the mandatory drop-off and pick-up. The school run has turned into a frustrating crawl as distracted chauffeurs bob and weave for a prime piece of curb-blocking real estate so their offspring don’t have to make too long or dangerous a trek from the car door to the school entrance.”
A 2011 report by Metrolinx surveyed parents in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). It showed that 53 per cent of children walked to school in 1985 and 15 per cent were driven. As of 2011, 36 per cent of children walk to school and 32 per cent are driven in cars. In Hamilton, 29 per cent of parents now drive their kids to school and 21 per cent drive them home. Eight per cent of those students live less than two kilometres from school. Another 35 per cent of students take a school bus in the morning and 37 per cent take it on the way back. Thirty-one per cent walk to school and 36 per cent walk home.
Local health authorities and active transportation groups are attempting to turn back the tide. Metrolinx’s Big Move project aims to have 60 per cent of children walk or cycle to school by 2031. The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, under fire for recent school closures, endorsed a 2015 Active and Sustainable School Transportation (ASST) Charter and now works in partnership with the city and its sister Catholic board.
School boards and education ministries have been instrumental in contributing to the decline in walkable schools. School closures lead to regional consolidation, moving kids further and further away from their designated school. Establishing speciality academies, French Immersion, and international baccalaureate schools have also contributed to the withering and disappearance of neighbourhood schools.
An even more important factor in the decline of kids on foot has been the nagging but totally unfounded perception that it’s not safe for kids to walk. “Something happened along the way where ‘stranger danger’ took over,” says Carol Sartor, a Vancouver safe route advocate and school travel planner. The reality is quite different: The RCMP estimate the odds of a child being abducted by a stranger are about one in 14 million.
Active transportation programs are not immune from budget cuts in times of austerity. A year ago, the Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre slammed the Nova Scotia government for cutting funding for their walk to school programs across the province. The budget cut, EAC’s Janet Barlow said, not only cut “longstanding and highly successful walk and bike to school initiatives,” but “hurt kids across the province.”
The EAC initiative had been provincially funded for 12 years and its funding had grown from $50,000 to $105,000 per year in the previous three years. Under a Nova Scotia Health and Wellness strategy, known as THRIVE, the EAC programs had spread to 24 urban and rural schools reaching and over 2,000 students. In addition to helping kids become more active, the programs were also designed to encourage pedestrian and biking safety.
Student transportation often emerges as a bone of contention in the school review for closure process. When the Hamilton-Wentworth school board was considering the closure of 11 more of its schools in May 2014, City Council weighed in, endorsing the safe school routes charter in an attempt to stave-off or delay the proposed closures. Safe transportation, walking and bus distances became a critical factor, activating a joint city-board committee that had been moribund for years.
School closures definitely compound the problem of declining walkability for school children and teens. In the case of the 2014 Hamilton school closure controversy, Dr. Bill Irwin, a professor in economics and business at Huron University College in London, presented his findings on the impact of closures.
“School closures cause a loss of community identity,” Dr. Irwin said. And they’re based on a provincial funding formula established 17 years ago, “when the demographic makeup of the province was significantly different than it is today.” He suggested boards press for a funding formula used in some areas of Europe that’s based on individual student needs to meet a knowledge-based economy rather than “a head count.” The Hamiliton ASST Charter embraced that position affirming the city and school board’s longer-term and ongoing commitment to “active and sustainable school transportation.”
The walkable school movement faces an uphill battle against school consolidation and a car-driven culture. What’s standing in the way of implementing school-wide active transportation programs? How can school boards professing support for active student transportation justify closing schools and forcing more families to either bus or drive kids over longer and longer distances? Will it take “traffic gridlock” around schools to produce a change in school siting and planning policies?