Kids commuting to school: what's driving the conversation?

"In such a short amount of time, it's gone from the norm, to the exception, and even though we're all complicit in it, none of us can figure out why."

'Parents have become more worried about things like kidnapping or their child being hit by a car,' says prof

A decrease in the quality of parent-child relationships, screen time and lack of play are some of the forces leading to an increase in child anxiety, according to child psychologist Tammy Schamuhn. (Shutterstock)

Live in any big city, and there are certain changes that constantly evoke anxiety and lament. 

The death of the corner store. The rise of tall towers. The increasing price of bread — and everything else.

But the societal change that might cause the most angst?

The decline in children walking to schools. 

"In such a short amount of time, it's gone from the norm, to the exception, and even though we're all complicit in it, none of us can figure out why," says Adrian Crook. 

A father of five in Vancouver's downtown Yaletown neighbourhood, Crook became the flashpoint for the debate last year, after child welfare officers sent him a letter saying his kids under 10 couldn't be unsupervised in the community.

He'd spent two years training his children — aged seven to 11 — to take the bus on their own.

Crook was back discussing the issue on local radio last week, after an article in the Vancouver Courier blamed increased congestion on parents driving their kids instead of letting them walk. 

He says he knows parents have defensible reasons for driving their children. But he believes ultimately, moms and dads have to look in the mirror. 

"We're content to blame institutions instead of ourselves for creating this culture we're in now."

Plenty of benefits

Evidence shows there are benefits to children who walk to school.

"Kids get great physical activity from the experience, and [that] has been known to be associated with lower rates of obesity, but also clearer mental cognitive capacity and resilience and better mood, so they can take these benefits into the school day with them," said Mariana Brussoni, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia's School of Population and Public Health.

Brussoni said research also shows that walking to school has a positive effect on a child's grades, but she noted parents today have safety concerns.

"There's lots of really important benefits … [but] parents have become more worried about things like kidnapping or their child being hit by a car, or coming to some sort of serious harm," she said.

"These concerns are not really justified by the data," she said. "It's never been a safer time to be a child in Canada than it is now." 

A board of nine trustees normally manages this school district that serves the city of Vancouver. (Don Marce/CBC)

Little data available

But it's hard for politicians to do anything about this trend: partly because it's a result of so many smaller issues, and partly because there's little tangible evidence for them to act upon. 

"We don't have ongoing data, so how those numbers change with time is unknown," said Janet Fraser, Vancouver School Board chair.

Every year, the school board measures commuting patterns at four or five institutions, said Fraser. For 2015 to 2016, those schools reported between 50 and 70 per cent of students walked to school.  

Fraser said the board encourages student to walk or bike to school. "It's healthy, it's good for the environment, it helps to get to know your neighbourhood well, and it could be good family time."

No silver bullets

One thing that could make a slight difference is the work being done by Metro Vancouver's mobility pricing commission. Created last year, the group is looking on how congestion on roads could be reduced through a variety of fees including traditional road tolls, distance or time-based charges, and costs for driving in certain locations at certain times of the day.

It is expected to make recommendations to TransLink in the spring, and it could potentially create incentives for parents to let their kids find alternative means of transportation. 

"The experience of cities that have implemented charging shows [people] do change quite quickly, which shows there are some trips that are reasonably flexible — maybe 15 to 20 per cent of trips ... that are flexible, and can make adaptations," said Daniel Firth, executive director of the commission. 

But Firth also says that without more tangible data on how kids get to school, it's hard to make many conclusions at this point. 

Which means the debate over school commuting, like the wheels on the bus, will continue to go round and round.