We can make a city where it really is the best place to raise a child - where it's safe to walk to school - but that will require political leadership.
By Jason Allen
Published April 15, 2016
On one of the few nice days we've had this spring, we were part of a long parade of children headed to our son's elementary school. Like many parents in our neighbourhood, we walk our son to school as it's quite close. Unfortunately, because of how bad the traffic can be on Dundurn Street South, we're never quite sure what we're going to be in for.
Still, we love the sense of community that flows down the street with kids and parents and dogs and strollers greeting each other, keeping out a watchful eye. It should be the perfect way to get some exercise.
On that particular morning, two blocks away from the school, we heard the deafening screech of tires coming to an emergency stop. A parent closer to the scene yelled at a driver to "Slow the @@## down!"
By the time we got to the crossing guard, David, he was shaking his head. "Two today. They'll take me out of here on a stretcher. Maybe if I'm dead they'll do something." But David won't back down. He'll be standing in front of kids holding out his stop signs until the end.
Crawling down the road beside the school was a long line of cars looking for somewhere to park so they could let their child out from the safety of two tons of glass and steel, directly to the safety of the fenced-in playground. While we know walking is the better choice, it's pretty clear why other parents opt for a "driveway-to-driveway experience".
This week, Metrolinx released the Active School Transportation report describing trends in how students get to school. Spoiler alert: It's not pretty.
The report focuses on students aged 11-13 and 14-17, who in the next 10 to 15 years will be determining how they commute to and from work - patterns that will be established by how they get to and from school.
If we think we have a health and obesity crises now, this report shows we're likely only seeing the beginning. Since 1986, levels of active transportation (defined as walking or cycling) to and from school have dropped 19 percent for 11- to 13-year-olds and 11 percent for 14- to 17-year-olds.
We know that putting daily activity into your lifestyle is one of the easiest ways to maintain good health, so this is a disturbing trend. In 1986, over 55 percent of students would walk to school, now below 30 percent walk.
Instead, the rate of students who travel by car has shot up from about 12 percent to over 25 percent among 14- to 17-year-olds. Perhaps we should not be too surprised that 31 percent of children in Canada were found to be obese or overweight by Statistics Canada in 2012.
Of course, statistics only tell half of the story. David tells the other half. Daily he is honked at, yelled at and nearly missed by drivers who value speeding down the road over the safety of a line-up of five- to ten-year-olds, waiting for him to blow the whistle so they can cross to school.
This is a direct result of a city that puts keeping cars moving above the health and safety of everyone else.
It doesn't have to be this way. We could encourage students to walk and cycle to school on a regular basis by making Hamilton a city where it is as safe and convenient to walk and cycle to school as it is to drive.
The Social Planning and Research Council recently reported that Hamilton is one of the most dangerous cities in Ontario for pedestrians. And if it's bad for adults, you know it's far worse for children. We need what Gil Penalosa calls an 8-80 city, a city that works for eight-year-olds and 80-year-olds - a city that works for everyone.
The city is about to wrap up our newest Transportation Master plan, which, if it's anything like the last one, is going to contain sweeping recommendations about slowing down traffic, making cycling safer, and encouraging pedestrians.
Unlike the last time, we need to make sure these recommendations aren't ignored.
Motions like Ward 8 Councillor Terry Whitehead's proposed moratorium on new safety improvements on all roads in the lower city until after 2024 ignores the evidence and makes cars more important than David out there with his stop signs.
It forces students into cars and leads toward a rise in obesity that we could be slowing down. We can make a city where it really is the best place to raise a child - where it's safe to walk to school.
But that will require political leadership and a desire to put the needs of our most vulnerable residents first.
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