Pupils are back in class – the chaos of cars around our schools is back too

Big number: 27.9, the percentage of children in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area who walked or biked to school in 2016, according to surveys. This is down from 56% in 1986.

Pupils are back in class this week, which means many parents will be revving up their SUVs for the official start of the school commute mayhem derby. Drive by most schools in the morning and afternoon and you’ll see it: long lines of frustrated parents and caregivers behind the wheel, dropping off or picking up students.

It’s a tradition of traffic jams and road rage during the school year. It’s stressful. It’s dangerous. It’s bad for the environment. It is bad for the physical, emotional and intellectual health of young people.

And it goes from bad to worse.

The number of Toronto children being driven to school, rather than being walked or cycled, has increased dramatically over the past few decades.

According to data collected by Toronto’s Transportation Tomorrow Survey, only 12% of children aged 11 to 13 in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area drove to school in 1986. The majority of young people — about 56% — walked.

Three decades later, the data looked quite different. In 2016, 30% of children aged 11 to 13 drove. The percentage of people walking or cycling has halved to 27.9%.

More recent data is not yet available. The past two pandemic-ravaged school years wouldn’t yield good data anyway. But with a COVID-induced trend of more families buying automobiles, I fear this school year will set records for the percentage of GTA kids arriving to school by car.

There are all sorts of reasons why it’s bad. The danger of having cars blocking streets around schools is obvious. Toronto’s Vision Zero map of pedestrians killed or seriously injured by cars counts five deaths and 31 injuries among children 14 and under in the past five years alone. Many happened near schools during the school year.

Research also suggests children would be healthier if they didn’t drive to school. Research collected by the University of Toronto has shown that children who walk to school tend to perform better academically. They are also generally less stressed. What about the exercise children get by walking or riding a bike? It’s good, of course.

And if you don’t have school-aged kids and wonder why you should care, consider this: Metrolinx, the provincial agency responsible for transportation planning, says car trips to and from from school are responsible for approximately 20% of all morning rush hours. hourly traffic. If these routes didn’t exist, you would have fewer cars blocking your way.

Clearly reversing the trend and getting more children to walk or cycle to school would be good for a whole host of reasons. Recognizing this, Metrolinx has set a goal of having 60% of all students walk or bike to school by 2031. But getting there is a daunting challenge.

I don’t think the answer is simply to shame or intimidate parents. Since becoming a parent myself, I’ve learned that experience is often about surviving each day. The requests are numerous and the time is limited.

It is therefore also the responsibility of governments, schools and transport planners to make it easier for parents to choose whether to walk or cycle their child to school.

First, more emphasis needs to be placed on building new schools in high-density areas. Today you can visit fast-growing neighborhoods in Toronto like the waterfront or downtown and you’ll likely see signs advising new residents that they may not have enough capacity to accommodate children in local schools.

These signs might as well say “your government has let you down.” If there is no school within reasonable walking distance, of course, parents will not make their children walk.

Second: Security issues are real. Toronto City Hall has made progress in recent years, bringing photo radar back to school zones to slow traffic. Other municipalities in the Greater Toronto Area are expected to follow suit. But the solution should not be limited to issuing banknotes. If there is a lot of speeding on the streets around schools, these streets should be redesigned to slow traffic. This means narrower roads, speed bumps and more traffic lights.

Finally, we must build the culture. A fascinating 2006 study comparing two primary schools in Scotland found that the school where active transport – walking and cycling – was part of the curriculum, and safe route resources were shared with parents, saw an almost 400% increase in walking to school compared to the status quo.

In other words, part of confronting the chaos of the car could be as simple as simply reminding people that there is an alternative. Driving has a way of becoming ingrained in people’s minds as the best way to get around, to the point that walking or cycling aren’t even considered anymore. Schools can help by doing what they do best: teaching students — and their parents — that there is a smarter way.

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