Big number: 27.9, the percentage of kids in the greater Toronto and Hamilton area who walked or biked to school, according to surveys in 2016. That’s a decrease from 56 percent in 1986.
Students are back in the classroom this week, meaning many parents will be revving up their SUVs for the official start of the school commuter chaos derby. Drive past most schools in the morning and afternoon and you’ll see: long lines of frustrated parents and carers behind the wheel dropping off and picking up students.
It’s a traffic-jammed, street-mad school year tradition. It’s stressful. It is dangerous. It’s bad for the environment. It is bad for young people’s physical, emotional and intellectual health.
And it keeps getting worse.
The number of Toronto children being driven to school instead of walking or cycling has increased dramatically in recent decades.
According to data collected by Toronto’s Transportation Tomorrow Survey, in 1986 only 12 percent of children ages 11 to 13 in the greater Toronto and Hamilton area were transported to school. The majority of young people – about 56 percent – walked.
Three decades later, the data looked very different. A full 30 percent of children aged 11 to 13 were driven by car in 2016. The proportion of walking or cycling fell by half to 27.9 percent.
More recent data are not yet available. The last few pandemic-plagued school years wouldn’t provide good data anyway. But with a COVID-induced trend of more families buying cars, I worry that this school year could break records for the percentage of GTA kids who drive to school.
There are all sorts of reasons why this is bad. The danger of cars blocking the roads around schools is obvious. Toronto’s Vision Zero map of pedestrians killed or seriously injured by cars counts five deaths and 31 injuries in children under the age of 14 in the last five years alone. Many took place near schools during the school year.
Research also suggests that children would be healthier if they didn’t drive to school. Research from the University of Toronto has shown that children who walk to school tend to do better at school. They are also generally less stressed. And the movement that children get from walking or cycling? Of course it’s good.
And if you don’t have school-age children and are wondering why you should care, consider this: Metrolinx, the provincial authority in charge of transportation planning, says car trips to and from school account for about 20 percent of the total morning rush are responsible hour traffic. If it weren’t for these rides, you’d have fewer cars blocking your path.
It is clear that reversing the trend and getting more children to walk or bike to school would be good for a number of reasons. With that in mind, Metrolinx has set a goal of having 60 percent of all students walk or bike to school by 2031. But getting there is a gigantic challenge.
I don’t think the answer is simply to embarrass or intimidate parents. Since becoming a parent myself, I have learned that this experience is often just about surviving each day. The requirements are varied and time is limited.
It is also up to governments, schools and transport planners to make it easier for parents to decide whether to bike or walk their child to school.
First, there needs to be more emphasis on building new schools in areas of high population density. Today, you can visit fast-growing Toronto neighborhoods like the Waterfront or Midtown, and you’ll likely see signs informing new residents that they may not have enough capacity to place children in local schools.
These signs might as well be saying, “Your government has failed you.” Of course, if there isn’t a school within a reasonable walking distance, parents won’t let their children walk.
Second, the security concerns are real. Toronto City Hall has made some strides in recent years, bringing photo radar back into school zones to slow traffic. Other GTA communities should follow suit. But the solution shouldn’t be just issuing tickets. When streets around schools are far too fast, those streets need to be redesigned to slow traffic. That means narrower lanes, speed bumps and more traffic lights.
Ultimately, the culture must be built. A fascinating 2006 study comparing two primary schools in Scotland found that the school, where active transportation – walking and cycling – was part of the lesson plan and resources for safe routes were shared with parents, a nearly 400 % increase in walking use recorded by school compared to status quo.
In other words, part of confronting the car mayhem could be simply reminding people that there is an alternative. Driving has entrenched itself in people’s minds as the best mode of transportation to the point where walking or cycling is not even considered. Schools can help by doing what they do best: teaching students – and their parents – that there is a smarter way.