A new school year means traffic will build up around schools this week, with many families opting for alternative routes to get the children to class to avoid the headache of running to school.
But while there are advantages to leaving the car at home, some parents say the infrastructure around schools still needs improvement for those who walk or bike to class – something local governments are saying that they are actively working on it.
Rebecca Freedman said her daughters Adira and Mikaela Wunderlich have used bicycles for transportation since they started daycare and they now cycle to and from school and other activities in Victoria.
“It opens up so much freedom and opportunity,” Freedman said. “The time saved from not having to park. Schools are really crowded in the mornings with all sorts of vehicles. It really makes your life easier.”
Freedman’s daughters are also noticing the benefits.
“Cycling clears my head,” said 11-year-old Adira. “I’m very stressed, so it’s a really good start to the day and it’s a lot easier to get through the day when you start out with a clear head.”
“It’s fun and fast and it’s better for the environment,” said nine-year-old Mikaela.
Freedman, who says teaching her children road safety has been paramount, encourages other families to leave the car at home.
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However, she notes that while the safe infrastructure for walking and cycling to and from school has improved greatly over the years, there is still much work to be done.
According to ICBC, 31 children between the ages of five and 18 are injured in walking or cycling accidents in BC each month, and 66 children are injured in playground accidents each year.
This is where planners like Emily Sinclair come in. Sinclair runs a program called Ready Step Roll for the Capital Regional District on south Vancouver Island, working with communities and schools to make school trips safer for children.
Each year for the past six years, the program has worked with five schools to identify and address barriers to car-free commuting.
Solutions included installing pedestrian-activated signals to cross the street with a signal time appropriate for children, Sinclair said.
“Some of the other things that people might see driving through the region are the use of bollards or these flexible plastic poles,” she added. “They can also be used to create spaces where cars aren’t supposed to go.”
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She said the program measures its success by the number of education and infrastructure measures it can implement over a 12-month period – but also by reducing the number of people commuting to school, which encourages exercise and reduces greenhouse gases .
Sinclair said results data for the program will next be released in late 2023.
The city of Langford, a suburb west of Victoria, is also working to make school trips safer for everyone – including families whose circumstances mean they have no choice but to drive to school.
“Now I think for affordability reasons both parents have to work or the guardians work or the grandparents work… and sometimes they have to drive her to school because the school bus might be late or early or something like that,” Michelle said Mahovlich, the city’s technical director.
The city has partnered with the local school district and ICBC and received provincial grants to upgrade infrastructure, including building a roundabout to keep traffic flowing, limiting left turns in some areas and adding traffic lights.
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In nearby Sooke, school district superintendent Scott Stinson said separating vehicles from cyclists and pedestrians was key.
They’ve also introduced a lighted crosswalk at a middle school — especially helpful in the dark winter months — and designated bike lanes. They also recommend picking up and dropping off a few minutes before and after the morning and afternoon bells, respectively, to minimize congestion.
“It’s important to help the parents understand those different parts, and then do the infrastructure part to make sure that’s easy for them,” Stinson said.