School Travel Planning Helps Get Kids Walking and Rolling
When parents start to think about where to set down roots, they dream of places where their children can one day enjoy space to play with neighbourhood children, in well-knit, quiet communities, close to parks, community centres and schools. And, much like when they were young, parents hope to live where their kids can walk or bike to school. They envision mornings spent walking to and from school, hearing their tales of learning, playing and creating new friendships, until one day, they start to make the trip on their own.
Unfortunately, the reality in many communities is quite different. Whether through fear of stranger-danger, increased traffic volumes, demanding household schedules, or the simple convenience of dropping their child off at school before driving to the office or to run errands, fewer children arrive to school by foot or bicycle nowadays than did their parents’ generation. The result is that many school-fronts are chaotic scenes of cars scrambling for that coveted space so children can be dropped off safe and sound mere steps from the front doors of the school. They’ve become self-fulfilling prophecies of parents driving their kids to school because it’s not safe enough to walk because there are too many cars.
Hope is not lost on this generation of school children, however. Cities across North America are adopting programs aimed at growing the number of students who arrive to school actively and are beginning to reverse this negative pattern. Organizations like Safe and Active Routes to School and Dash BC provide support and activities to help schools encourage their students to try getting to school on foot, bicycle, scooter or any other active mode.
But programming isn’t enough when the way we’ve designed our streets has made them unsafe. Thankfully, there has been a movement for sometime now to make cities safer places for people, and a recognition that they can do better.
In 2009, Surrey, BC, initiated the School Travel Planning Program that seeks to address concerns around safety, congestion, the environment and health by developing school travel and action plans that identify what can be done to change the travel habits of staff, students and families for the better. The program focuses on three key areas:
Engineering Measures: Speed reduction, improved pedestrian safety, signage
Education and Awareness Initiatives: Programming targeted at students and families like best travel route maps & bike-safety programs
Enforcement: ensuring the school community is following traffic and parking regulations
As a part of our Active Transportation Practice, Urban Systems has been playing an active role in supporting the program since the 2015/16 school year, working with different schools each year to develop plans that best fit their community. Beth Hurford, an Active Transportation Consultant, has been fortunate enough to work with the 2016/17 schools, having held a similar role for the District of Squamish working on their Safe Routes Program, and bringing with her knowledge and experience invaluable to creating successful plans.
“The success of the programs can depend on how engaged the Principal and School Administration are,” she explains. As the main point of contact to the school community, principals have the best sense of what challenges exist to getting kids choosing to arrive by walking or biking, and help get the entire school community engaged in the process. “Schools that are enthusiastic about the program have the most success.”
For this reason, for the 2017/18 school year, Beth worked with the City and the School Board to identify schools that have clearly communicated their need to address existing issues, and presented the program and what to expect before the three schools that will participate made a commitment to the School Travel Planning program.
Once the schools are selected, the Principal pinpoints their greatest perceived challenges, any existing programming the school offers, as well as the level of engagement from staff and parents. Beth admits that while most of the principals she has worked with are quite engaged in the process, getting parents involved can be a challenge due to varying schedules, the demographics of a school community, etc., but acknowledges that those schools with greater parent participation are more likely to see successes.
Getting parents on board is a key step to changing habits because for elementary school-aged children, they are the ones making the travel decisions. Coincidentally, while studies around active travel to school focus on the benefits for kids, particularly around better academic achievement and physical health, one of the main reasons parents choose not to let their children walk or ride to school centres around safety.
“Generally, the most common issue that prompts the anxiety around school travel planning is a crowded parking lot,” Beth identifies. Dangerous parking lots and crowded drop-off and pick-up areas pit parents up against each other, creating a hostile environment. For those students who are bused to school, drivers can’t get near enough to the school to safely drop them off. “Expanding the parking lot is not a long-term solution, so we look at what other steps we can take to alleviate the problem and improve safety.”
The best way to understand what the conditions schools are experiencing each day is to watch it in action, making school walkabouts a key component in the process. The small child waiting at a busy crosswalk for a break in traffic to get to class becomes a stark realization that small measures like a raised crosswalk and pedestrian controlled lights would do wonders to improve the quality of that crossing. Cars driving past a school at high speeds identify the need for traffic calming measures like speed bumps, and changes to on-street parking regulations during school hours limit the number of cars vying for a spot outside the school.
Beth recognizes that major infrastructure changes like new curb cuts and sidewalks take time, but often these needs have already been identified – participating in the School Travel Planning process simply provides the initiative for the City to reprioritize where possible.
However, infrastructure changes alone will not change the travel habits of students, and this is why engagement is such a key component of this programs. Beth explains that at the start of each year, they perform hands-up surveys in the classrooms for one week, detecting which mode the students commonly use to get to school. While not an exact science, these surveys, coupled with a take-home survey for parents and caregivers, helps to show where the pain points may exist around active transportation.
While working behind the scenes with the City and other stakeholders to make recommendations and improvements to the street environment, engagement activities happen at the school like bicycle courses and safety education programming, building up to events such as the schools’ Walking and Rolling Challenges in the Spring, where classes compete to see who can get the most number of students arriving actively – of course with prizes for the winning classes.
Beth points out that it’s imperative that no student is made to feel ashamed if they can’t walk or roll. “If you’re doing a hands-up survey, and there are always a few kids who never put their hands up, you could potentially make those kids feel left out, for reasons that are out of their control.” Which is why “Drive to Five” locations – areas that are no more than a five-minute walk to the school – are identified to offer families where walking to school just isn’t practical, a solution that still counts as active travel.
And the students take pride in being able to participate in actively arriving at school. They may not acknowledge the health and academic benefits, but they certainly understand the social ones. Who wouldn’t love to spend time connecting with friends before and after school each day, excitedly sharing what they did on the weekend or scheming plans for recess games? This valuable bonding time can easily be taken for granted, but the benefit to a child’s social growth is immense.
“The students are interested and they do want to do it,” states Beth. Referring to one of their walking celebrations to launch a new walking path, she recounted how parent participation was influenced by their children. “We heard from parents that did the celebration walk that their kids had begged them to participate.” This is promising to hear, as the best way to create lasting habits is to inspire children when they’re young.
While each school year and individual school poses new and different challenges, the School Travel planning program provides an opportunity to take active steps to improve the environment outside of schools, and, in effect, the surrounding community. For Beth and the Urban Systems team, it is the chance to work directly with a number of communities to create more vibrant spaces to move and play, particularly for the citizens who will spend much of their lives growing up in a place that makes them feel safe, welcome and connected.