Walking to school? What a novel concept

Monday, September 10, 2012
Cities, school boards work to get students out of the family car

By Erin Ellis, Vancouver Sun



These kids from Herbert Spencer elementary in the Queens Park area of New Westminster hop on their bikes to get to school.
Photograph by: Stuart Davis, PNG , Vancouver Sun

Walking or biking to school didn't used to require a crack organizational team, but it's come to that in urban North America.

Parents who drop off their kids at school as they rush to work, coupled with a fear of let-ting youngsters loose on busy city streets, has created a vast change in a single generation. Forty-one per cent of Canadian kids get a lift to school, com-pared to 13 per cent of their parents, according to a survey conducted earlier this year by a national coalition working to get students out of cars.

(As for their grandparents, they walked uphill both ways, right?)

Now schools, parents, city halls and health promoters are trying to turn that number around. The City of New West-minster has become a leader in the area after three years of effort. Its next step is enshrining safe walking and biking routes to schools in its revised master transportation plan.

Smack in the middle of Metro Vancouver, New Westminster has nowhere to expand and can't build new streets so it's particularly motivated to reduce existing traffic, Eugene Wat, head of infrastructure planning, said in a telephone interview.

Traffic to schools typically accounts for 10 to 15 per cent of a city's congestion, he says, and neighbourhood schools are within walking or biking distance for most students.

"Historically, kids walked to school ... we're trying to reverse the trend back to that," says Wat.

The motivation is two-fold: traffic around schools is out of line and kids are out of shape.

A 2012 report card produced by the national organization Active Healthy Kids Canada says 46 per cent of students get three hours or less of active play a week, including week-ends. It recommends one hour a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity for students from five to 17, but found only seven per cent of Canadians achieved that goal.

New Westminster school trustee Jonina Campbell, who is also a teacher and parent of two school-aged children, wants to change that.

"From a health perspective, being active is a really important part of development and it has enormous educational benefits. Exercise gets the brain ready to learn and it puts students in a good mood, with a positive attitude from walking to school," Campbell said in a telephone interview.

"Parents who think they're keeping their kids more safe by driving them - safe from what? They need to ask what's the cost in not letting their child be more responsible or more physically active," she said.

"It's the right of a child to be able to travel in their city ... If we make the city safe for kids to travel, to walk, to cycle, to take transit, they can do that independently or when they're little with their parents."

The most common reasons cited for driving children to school are time and convenience. But promoters of walking and biking say that's a misconception. The reality is a twice-a-day traffic jam, with its accompanying cloud of exhaust, outside most schools. Not only is it annoying for any-one in a rush, it's often dangerous as parents park on the wrong side of the street or in no-parking zones to get kids to class on time.

That's the very reason the province created the Hub for Active School Travel, or HASTe, five years ago. Its staff works with participating schools and municipalities to create route maps, consider what changes are needed to make pedestrians safe - such as raised cross-walks or bumped-out curbs that reduce the distance a child has to cross - and follow up with safety training and pro-motional events.

Surrey, Langley and Vernon all fund projects to identify and improve roadways and paths for students. Vancouver will begin this year with six yet-to-be-named schools. Greater Toronto and Hamilton have similar programs.

New Westminster funds its safe route projects from a number of existing budgets for promoting sustainable transportation, Wat said.

Followup surveys in New West-minster found that traffic calming, safety education, an in-class Cool Routes to School program along with safe route maps for every elementary school made a difference. There was an 18-per-cent increase in walking at Richard McBride elementary and a nine-per-cent increase at Ecole Glenbrook middle school, which has a larger catchment area, says Sandra Jones, HASTe's travel planning and mapping specialist. At Queensborough middle school, the number of students driven to school dropped by 17 per cent.

And HASTE is starting a bike-pool program in selected New Westminster middle schools this fall that will send a riding instructor along with student commuters for one week to get them familiar with local routes and talk about bike maintenance and theft prevention.

HASTE also offers online resources to parents who want to organize walking school buses - groups of children strolling to school with a volunteer adult supervisor - or bicycle trains at www.hastebc.org.

It's co-sponsoring International Walk to School Week from Oct. 8-12 and provides resource kits to schools that sign up.

eellis@vancouversun.com

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