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Archive for the ‘Walkable Schools’ Category

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.

WalkableSchoolsFeedomFridayParent 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.”

WalkableSchoolsGTADataA 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.

WalkingSchoolBusActive 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? 

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Public schools in many Canadian regional school boards simply do not operate anymore without a ready fleet of yellow buses. A growing share of the school tax dollar in Maritime Canada is consumed by daily student transportation, even as student enrollment declines and opportunities are being missed to achieve better cost and energy efficiencies. That was the key finding of our  January 2015 AIMS research report, Education on Wheels, and it raised what has been, for many years, a largely “hidden” public policy issue in the education sector.

AIMSEDonWheelsTransporting students to school is consuming more and more of the costs of public education not only in the Maritimes, but in Ontario and most provincial school systems (Monteiro and Atkinson, 2012). In Nova Scotia, over the past five years, student transportation costs (actual operating/per F/S) have risen from $64.2 million to $71.2 million, an increase of 10.9 per cent (Nova Scotia, DoEECD, 2014) at a time when overall P-12 enrollment continues to decline. The same pattern is also exhibited in neighbouring New Brunswick.

While it is fast becoming a major challenge for provincial education authorities and school boards, the critical issues remain shrouded in mystery and largely hidden from the public. School transportation policy is essentially driven by provincial grants and the official 3.6km/2.4 km/1.6 km ‘Walk Limit Standard’ entrenched in the long-standing regulations. School board initiatives aimed at containing costs by fiddling with local busing regulations and enforcing walking distances have little effect when “Education on Wheels” is taking a bigger and bigger bite out of provincial education spending (Table 1: Nova Scotia, DoEECD, 2014).

School closures and consolidation are routinely implemented as cost reduction measures without any real disclosure of the impact on school board or provincial school busing costs. Small school advocates and community activists who ask questions about the added costs to taxpayers are assured that it is either of no concern or that more students can simply be added to existing bus routes (Bennett, 2013, 29-32).

Behind the scenes, school boards claim that costs are “at the breaking point” and lobby fiercely for increased grant support to maintain or augment their bus fleets. It is, as a 2008 Alberta School Boards Association report quipped, “the stone in everybody’s shoe” (ASBA, 2008, 3). Yet, in the case of Nova Scotia, closing schools and putting more students on buses has only compounded the problem. Five years ago three in five P-12 students (62.8%) were bused to school each day; by 2013-14, two-thirds (68.1%) of the province’s students rode the buses and travelling longer average daily distances (Table 2: Nova Scotia, DEECD, 2014).

Student transportation trends in the Maritimes tend to be at odds with the recent pattern across North America. Looking at the entire U.S. Kindergarten to Grade 12 student population, slightly over half (55.3 per cent) of the 25.3 million students in 2004 were transported on school buses at public expense. A 2009 American study of how that nation’s elementary school students get to school demonstrated that, while the proportion of U.S. K-12 students bused over the past forty years has remained about 39 per cent overall, the percentage being driven by parents had jumped from 12 per cent to 45 per cent. Most significantly, the proportion of American students walking or bicycling to school dropped from 48 per cent to only 13 per cent.

Such a pattern is not as evident in Maritime cities like Halifax, Saint John, Moncton, and Fredericton. In the Halifax Regional School Board (2013-14), for example, 24,509 of the 48,596 students (or 50.4 %) were bused, about 7.6 % more than five years earlier. For small town and rural Maritime children, student transportation by those distinctive yellow buses still predominates with most school districts busing between 80 and 95.9 per cent of their students to and from school each day from September to June (Table 2: Nova Scotia, DoEECD, 2014).

Over the past thirty years, since the mid-1980s, provincial authorities and school boards outside of the Maritime region have become much more attuned to student transportation costs and the potential for cost efficiencies. Sharing of bus services between school boards and with other educational institutions surfaced in the mid-1980s, mainly in Ontario and rural Alberta.

SchoolBusUrban The Ontario Student Transportation Reform initiatives provide many lessons for other provinces. A 2002 Ontario Education Equality Task Force recommended that the province create 8 to 10 joint transportation “service boards.” In 2006-07, the Ontario Ministry of Education took action, requiring school boards across the province to develop partnerships and combine school board transportation departments into separate fully integrated transportation organizations. The Student Transportation Reform initiative compelled all of the province’s 72 boards to embrace the co-operative student transportation model and to combine in common, coterminous geographical areas (Ontario, STR, 2014).

In the initial phases of coterminous sharing, millions of tax dollars were saved, but the entry of dominant bus industry players like Laidlaw/Student First and Stock and preferred supplier arrangements tended to reduce price competition over time. While the initial cost efficiencies were dramatic, they did not apparently last.

An Ontario Student Transportation Task Force report, in June 2011, identified the problem of competitive procurement and revealed that school bus costs, serving 800,000 students, had reached $845 million, representing 4 per cent of the education budget. Based upon such findings, Ontario economist Don Drummond included reducing student transportation costs by 25 % in his February 2012 report recommending province-wide austerity measures (Drummond, 2012, R 6-17). That recommendation was likely based upon the documented findings of Ministry of Education Effectiveness & Efficiency Reviews, conducted since 2008, and pointing out further potential cost savings.

The most recent research study, produced for the June 2012 Canadian Transportation Research Forum, provided a valuable critical economic market analysis of Canadian school bus transportation. Researchers Joseph Monteiro and Benjamin Atkinson offered an overview of student transportation, province-by-province, and then examined, in some detail, the school bus industry. The researchers identified the need to further examine the impact of subsidization of pupil transportation, the privatization of school bus services, and the costs relative to the primary mission of public education systems. Serious attention was drawn to the potential for collusion between bus operators and “bid rigging” in the awarding of contracts (Monteiro and Atkinson, 2012).

Better managing the bus fleet and achieving cost reductions are only one side of the public policy issue. Nova Scotia’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Robert Strang, has urged policy-makers to look at the impact of school consolidation and busing on the health of children and youth (Strang, CT-NS AGM, 2014). Community advocacy groups such as Community Transit-Nova Scotia and the Ecology Action Centre share this concern and support public policy initiatives promoting active, healthy transportation alternatives. A comprehensive audit of student transportation might open the door to community planning more focused on establishing walkable schools in healthier local communities.

A few critical questions need to be asked: What are the Real Costs – financial and social– of busing so many kids to school?  Why is Student Transportation rarely factored into public discussion about containing education costs and creating liveable, walkable communities? Simply posing those questions will spark a needed policy debate over school consolidation, the rising costs of student busing, and the disappearance of walkable community schools. 

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