Walking or biking to school didn’t used to require an organizational team, but it’s come to that in urban North America and Vancouver’s getting on board this fall.
The city recently joined New Westminster, Surrey and Langley in funding a project that identifies, improves and maps safe walking and biking routes to schools. The Okanagan City of Vernon has done the same. Vancouver will start out with six yet-t0-be-named schools.
New Westminster is the leader so far, says Mike Smith, the school programs manager with the provincially funded Hub for Active School Travel or HASTe which runs the mapping projects. That city has produced maps for every school within its boundaries that include a distance scale for estimating walking and cycling times.
New Westminster is also looking at enshrining safe school routes in its master city plan which is a huge step, he says. And HASTe is starting a bike-riding program in selected middle schools there this fall that will send a riding instructor along with student commuters for one week to show them how to be safe and keep their bikes from getting stolen.
The province created HASTe in 2008 after it identified walking school buses and bicycle trains as tools to combat the twice-daily traffic jams that plague most elementary and middle schools when parents in cars and minivans line up to drop their kids. But the idea for walking school buses — groups of children strolling to school with a volunteer adult supervisor — was originally a response to dangerous inner-city streets in Chicago. It morphed into a health program as teachers and parents throughout the U.S. and Canada observed a growing number of chubby kids who have almost no outdoor activities.
HASTe couldn’t provide me with any firm figures on the number of students who are turning down a lift to school — or perhaps being turned down — because it ebbs and flows with the seasons, parent volunteers and as kids move to higher grades, said Smith. And many arrangements are less formal such as parents or older siblings taking turns walking younger kids to school.
A Canadian coalition of groups working to get kids out of cars conducted a survey earlier this year with 18,547 parents. It found that 13 per cent of today’s parents were driven to school, but 41 per cent of their kids get a ride. The most common reasons cited for driving children to school was time and convenience.
In asking parents what would help them unleash their kids, only 10 per cent said a program like the walking bus would do it. Just under 50 per cent said physical improvements to make safer streets, such as bumped-out curbs that reduce the distance a child has to cross at a street corner, and safety education were more important.
That’s all part of the planning in participating cities, explains HASTe’s community programs manager Kerry Hamilton. When parents, students, teachers, school administrators, urban designers and engineers get together, they look at the safest routes and then ways to improve them such as better visibility at corners, or perhaps barrier walls to allow kids to walk along busy streets.
“It’s a process that you go through… In the end you get an action plan,” she says.
If the so-called bubble-wrap generation is to get on its feet, there has to be a huge shift, Smith says, and he believes it has slowly started.
“Parents want to do what is best for their kids and here is an opportunity to encourage their kids’ independence.”
HASTe offers an array of information, tools and advice at http://www.hastebc.org/.
It’s also co-sponsoring International Walk to School Week from Oct. 8-12 and provides resource kits to schools that sign up.