Car-free ‘school streets’ could boost health, safety for Ottawa students

School streets programs increase active transportation and support social connection, while cutting air pollution around schools.

School streets have emerged as a solution to two interlinked problems: an increasing number of children being driven to school, and an increase in dangerous traffic congestion during drop-offs and pickups. Canadian Veggie photo.

This article was published by The Energy Mix on Jan. 25, 2024.

By Gaye Taylor

Introducing car-free streets near Ottawa’s schools could reduce congestion, increase active transportation for students and guardians, and support community building, finds a new report, but the idea will only succeed with proper funding and execution.

And before child-friendly School Streets are enforced near any school, it must meet some essential eligibility criteria—that more than half of its students live within walking distance and less than one-third are bused in, says the analysis [pdf] by Ottawa’s EnviroCentre.

With the Ottawa Student Transportation Authority (OSTA) as a partner, EnviroCentre has been advising on how to implement increasingly popular School Streets in Canada’s capital. The feasibility study reviews lessons from other Canadian municipalities that have blocked car traffic near schools, getting students to walk, bike, or roll instead. EnviroCentre says ensuring community buy-in—through engagement on closure design and project structure—is key to success. Municipal buy-in is also critical, to secure road-closure permits and ensure legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

Once they’re up and running, School Streets can contribute to the city’s sustainability and emissions reduction goals and promote healthy and inclusive communities, the report says, adding that city councillors, principals, and school council representatives have all expressed interest in running the program in their communities.

Why School Streets

A School Street is typically a small section of road that is closed to virtually all motorized vehicles during school drop-off and pick up times, for anywhere between 15 and 90 minutes. The road closure can be enforced with signs, supervised physical barriers, automated enforcement cameras, or street design.

Careful provisions ensure that emergency vehicles can still enter, that students and residents with mobility challenges are not harmed or inconvenienced, that essential city services like snow removal are maintained, and that disruption to residents is kept to a minimum.

They’ve emerged as a solution to two interlinked problems: an increasing number of children being driven to school, and an increase in dangerous traffic congestion during drop-offs and pickups.

“Active transit to school for 11- to 13-year-olds declined by between 42.5 per cent and 53  during the period from 1986-2006,” says EnviroCentre, citing a 2009 study of Toronto children.

And according to a 2011 study in the United States, 89 per cent of students living within 1.6 kilometres of their school walked there in 1969. By 2009, that percentage dropped to 35 per cent.

The number of students walking to school “continues to decline,” Lisa Gander, project lead for EnviroCentre’s School Active Transportation program, told The Energy Mix in an interview. Asked what proportion of them were driving rather than busing, Gander cited a 2022 OSTA survey in the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board that found 59 per cent of families eligible to take the school bus opting out and choosing to drive instead.

As for the children not eligible to take a school bus because they live close enough to walk, 38 per cent were driven the distance.

The impacts of all this driving have not been positive, EnviroCentre says. “Declining active transportation may have lasting mental and physical health impacts on children, and the shift from active modes to vehicular transportation creates new and growing carbon dioxide emissions which contribute to climate change.”

Gander said a 2022 study in Europe identified safety concerns and “stranger danger” fears as the primary reasons that more parents drive their kids to school these days. But another 2023 study identified travel distance as the primary factor in whether or not a child is driven to school.

Whatever the reasons, a lot more manoeuvring outside schools during drop-off and pick-up is imperilling student safety. Citing a 2007 study of child-related pedestrian collisions in Montreal, EnviroCentre writes that 25 per cent occurred within 263 metres of a school.

Notably, speed isn’t always the main concern. A 2019 School Streets pop-up project for Keele Street Public School in Toronto reported “hundreds of students being put at risk each day by impatient drivers not seeing them, not waiting for them, making aggressive three-point turns, and even driving up on the narrow sidewalks to pass other vehicles in bumper-to bumper traffic.”

A compounding problem is behemoth SUVs, increasingly becoming the vehicle of choice for Canadians. “For SUVs, front blind zones can be up to three metres (around 10 feet) and back blind zones can be twice that distance,” the authors of the Keele report said. “Younger children are also still developing their sensory and cognitive abilities and are not capable of judging how fast a vehicle is moving in their peripheral vision.”

School Streets Work—And Kids Love Them

Some 30 years after the first School Street was established in Bolzano, a city of 100,000 people in northern Italy, there’s a wealth of evidence that the programs increase active transportation and support social connection, while cutting air pollution around schools.

EnviroCentre says more than 1,000 School Streets projects around the world have been implemented since Bolzano, with the past five years seeing several Canadian cities taking the plunge, including Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Hamilton, Mississauga, Toronto, Markham, Kingston, and Montreal. (The EnviroCentre study includes links to the project reports produced by each of these cities.)

A school in Hamilton recorded significant behaviour changes during its once-a-week pilot in June 2022: 11 per cent fewer students were driven to school post-pilot (down from 32 to 21 per cent), while the number of students walking increased from 60 to 65 per cent.

Behaviour changes were even more marked in two Mississauga schools, with the percentage of students being driven declining 19 per cent post-pilot, from 47 to 28 per cent, and the percentage of walkers increasing to 58 per cent from 42 per cent.

Mississauga also showed a 38 per cent decrease in traffic volumes during the pilot, and holding at just 75 per cent of the pre-pilot total two weeks later.

Keele Public in Toronto did not track travel modes after its four-day pop-up ended, but travel modes changed slightly during the event, with 3 per cent more children walking and 4 per cent fewer being driven. One Keele parent who typically drove his child to school said the pop-up made him realize the school was closer than he thought, within easy walking distance.

Keele Public students themselves expressed an overwhelming preference for a long-term School Streets program, with 100 per cent of those who volunteered their opinion indicating they much preferred the child-focused street over the car-centric one.

Building In Equity

A concern for equity is baked into the School Street paradigm, with eligible schools with equity issues given priority. The EnviroCentre feasibility study links readers with the Ottawa Neighbourhood Equity Index “to identify areas with gaps in healthy living as part of a selection matrix.”

One equity issue with School Street projects—at least at the pilot stage—is the potential need for volunteers to supervise street closures. As one of the Ottawa stakeholders interviewed for the feasibility study pointed out, low-income neighbourhoods often lack volunteer capacity, with many residents working jobs that make it impossible for them to take part. With sufficient funding, permanent infrastructure or the equivalent of paid crossing guards could help address this issue, Gander said.

What’s Next for Ottawa?

While Ottawa has no framework or permitting process to allow school street closures, the city is “actively working” to change this situation, Gander said.

The city is pursuing a third-party model, with a non-profit or a school board leading the project and assuming the C$2 million in liability insurance, and a proposed framework will be presented to the city’s transportation committee later this year. The hope is that School Streets pilots will be able to launch by this fall.

But while a number of local groups are willing to take the lead on School Streets projects, Gander said capacity and funding are still missing.

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