Special Report: Walkable Streets

Dangerous Streets Discourage Children from Walking to School

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".

Active School Transportation

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.

Keeping Cars Moving

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.

New Transportation Master Plan

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.

Jason Allen is a chronic hive whacker in the Kirkendall Neighbourhood.

11 Comments

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By StephenBarath (registered) | Posted April 15, 2016 at 08:27:28

Great article, Jason. Nice to see reports like Metrolinx’s brought home. It’s one thing to get the facts, and another to hear from the people taking the decisions that make up the report’s stats.

Dundurn South is ridiculous. There’s no good reason for the way it’s set up, and many good reasons- I think Earl Kitchener being the best one- it should be much safer. No controlled crossing for over 700 meters. That funnel from Charlton is particularly ridiculous- very few motorists make a proper stop and check properly for people on foot. Generally, motorists in Hamilton seem extremely aggressive to me, and Dundurn is no exception. I don’t blame the parents who don’t feel like dealing with it with children. There are innumerable reasons why kids walking to school is a positive thing, but the benefits are usually not highly visible. Whereas the drawbacks- having experiences that make you fear for your children’s immediate safety, or compel you to use profanity in front of them- are pretty in-your-face.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted April 15, 2016 at 08:52:24

Honestly, I keep coming back to Charlton and Herkimer. It's not just that they're fast streets in a residential area, it's that they're fast streets that funnel traffic onto roads like Locke and Dundurn. Without those little highways there, drivers would take the most direct route to Main/King to travel across the city.

Sadly, council will never let them be calmed since I'm sure a good chunk of council (particularly Whitehead) use them to get around near City Hall.

On the subject of dropping kids off by car - the thing is that in a modern dual-income household, it just makes sense for parents who are driving to work to drive to the school. Particularly when you figure all the after-school activities kids are scheduled into these days. I drop off my kids by car on days when I need to pick up my son from violin after school - on other days I walk the kids and then take transit/bike to work.

So in a sense, transit is the key variable here - if you're driving to work, of course you're going to drive your kids to the school on the way. Even if the kids won't be taking the bus because the school is in walking distance, what matters is what happens after the kids get dropped of.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted April 15, 2016 at 14:02:57 in reply to Comment 117683

The new bike lanes on Herkimer and Charlton between Dundurn and James will really help calm traffic, as well as making it safer to cycle to school. They should be installed in June in time for the new school year in September.

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By John Neary (registered) | Posted April 15, 2016 at 09:21:31 in reply to Comment 117683

Pxtl, we've had this debate before, but funnelling even more traffic onto Main, King, Cannon, etc. doesn't make the problem any better. It makes the problem worse at schools like St. Patrick's, Dr. Davey, and St. Brigid's that are located on or near these even busier, less safe streets, and by doing so exacerbates the inequity between schools and neighbourhoods.

I agree that pedestrian safety needs to be improved around many of our schools, including Earl Kitchener, but I don't think that any reasonable person could argue that the problems at Earl Kitchener are in any way comparable to those at, say, St. Patrick's, which is literally bounded on three sides by Main, King, and Victoria.

I don't mean this comment as a criticism of you (or of Jason), but simply as a reminder that we ought to prioritize the most dangerous places for safety improvements.

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By ergopepsi (registered) | Posted April 15, 2016 at 09:29:23 in reply to Comment 117685

These fixes don't have to come in one at a time. The community of people that lives near and sends their kids to all of these schools can advocate for change concurrently. Also, making one neighbourhood safer provides an example to those who might defend the status quo in areas that need more help.

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By John Neary (registered) | Posted April 15, 2016 at 10:43:46 in reply to Comment 117686

I agree. Where I disagree is with the idea that redirecting traffic to Main/King would help. Actually, no, it would hurt those who are already even worse off.

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By ConstantGardener (registered) | Posted April 15, 2016 at 09:07:23

I'd suggest that the roads are aggressive more than the drivers. I drive during my job, not just to it, and I've driven in many countries. I avoid King and Main St, even though I live right next to them. They feel dangerous to drive on as well as walk beside and I'm aware of how quickly I could kill the people around me. The fact is we tend to drive as fast as we can. Drivers accelerate up to what feels like a safe speed, which is decided by the road design. Drivers have many advantages and conveniences over cyclists and walkers. It's only fair that the playing field be leveled by more crosswalks, bike lanes and slower speed limits.

Comment edited by ConstantGardener on 2016-04-15 09:08:28

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By Core-B (registered) | Posted April 16, 2016 at 09:07:25 in reply to Comment 117684

You are so right. Sadly, a simple no cost calming solution is available by simply changing the syncing pattern of the lights. I guess we still have too many motorheads in place who wish to retain the dangerous status quo that we are extremely good at.

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By Crispy (registered) | Posted April 15, 2016 at 09:38:40

I tend to agree with this study. First and foremost parents drive their kids to school because it is convenient for them. Secondary considerations are stranger danger and dangerous roads.

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By GrapeApe (registered) | Posted April 15, 2016 at 19:53:42

Jason - thank you for this. I walk my son each morning and I see the same at the other local school. I chat with the crossing guard at Locke and Aberdeen and she sees the same daily. My son and I have actually been walking when a car mounted the sidewalk directly in front of us to drive around another car. This morning I had a guy profusely apologize for riding his bicycle on sidewalk past me on Aberdeen because he was afraid of traffic. People are honestly trying to walk and bike in the face of serious personal risk. Why is this accepted?

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By mountaingoat (registered) | Posted April 17, 2016 at 19:36:05 in reply to Comment 117705

Ask Terry Whitehead why this is accepted. Are you there Terry? We know you're reading this!

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