Public health trying to ease traffic chaos at Hamilton schools

It gets chaotic in front of local schools sometimes. Cars clog the street as parents drop off their kids. Neighbours add to the jam as they drive by the school on their way to work. Small children weave between vehicles as they head to school on foot.

Traffic chaos at local schools

These results from a 2011 Metrolinx study show how students in the GTHA are getting to school. The number of students walking to work has declined over the past 20 years, public health officials say. And that's causing traffic issues in front of Hamilton schools. (Metrolinx)

It gets chaotic in front of local schools sometimes. Cars clog the street as parents drop off their kids. Neighbours add to the jam as they drive by the school on their way to work. Small children weave between vehicles as they head to school on foot.

Now the local health unit and Hamilton’s two school boards are trying to alleviate some of that.

Over the past 20 years, more and more parents are opting to drive their kids to school, even ones who live less than two kilometres away, said Kelly Scott, a physical activity specialist with Hamilton Public Health.

Hamilton parents "strongly agree" with the following things:

  • The need for safe bike paths/routes around schools (13 per cent).
  • That there are too many cars around schools (50).
  • That they choose to live in neighbourhoods because of the ability to walk or bike to school (32).
  • They worry about strangers or bullies (66).

Source: Metrolinx Stepping It Up study

Public Health has already been working with the public school board to develop safe walking routes in the Crown Point neighbourhood. And now it’s looking at developing an Active and Sustainable School Transportation Charter (ASST) with the city, the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) and the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board.

If trends are any indication, it’s needed. While walking to school used to be the norm for urban kids, fewer and fewer students are walking or biking to school anymore, Scott said. And part of that is because of the growing tangle of traffic in front of schools.

“There is a lot of intermingling with vehicles, students and everyday traffic,” she said.

“It can get quite hectic at the morning arrival and dismissal time.”

About the Metrlinx Harris-Decima survey:

There are 6,060,475 people in the GTHA. The survey got opinions from 1,016 of them, 85 of which were from Hamilton.

The margin of error for Hamilton is 6.2 per cent.

A 2011 Metrolinx report surveyed parents in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). It showed that 53 per cent of children walked to school in 1985 and 15 per cent were driven. As of 2011, 36 per cent of children walk to school and 32 per cent are driven in cars.

In Hamilton, 29 per cent of parents drive their kids to school and 21 per cent drive them home. Eight per cent of those students live less than two kilometres from school.

Why they're not walking

Another 35 per cent of students take a school bus in the morning and 37 per cent take it on the way back. Thirty-one per cent walk to school and 36 per cent walk home.

Metrolinx’s Big Move project aims to have 60 per cent of children walk or cycle to school by 2031.

Many parents drop their kids off at school because it's faster and easier, Scott said. Here are the major obstacles identified by Hamilton parents in the Metrolinx survey:

  • Having well-maintained sidewalks to the school, cleared of snow and debris (30 per cent).
  • Having cross guards and marked crossings in front of the school (29 per cent).
  • Having more signs along the children’s school route telling drivers to slow down (28 per cent).
  • Slower speed limits around schools (33 per cent).

Major concerns included not enough safe bike routes and paths to school (13 per cent), too many cars around the school (half of the parents surveyed strongly agreed it’s a problem) and fear of strangers and bullies (66 per cent).

Board ponders closing 11 elementary schools

About one-third of Hamilton parents said they chose to live in the neighbourhood they do because their children can walk or cycle to school.

Maximum distance a student can walk from school to home, according to provincial guidelines:

1 km: Junior and senior kindergarten students

1.6 km: Students in Grades 1 to 8

3.2 km: High school

The draft charter includes “supportive land-use and site planning,” identified as “ongoing comprehensive, collaborative approach to school siting and school site design policies.”

City council voted in favour of establishing a charter in March, a decision made in light of the public board voting in June whether to close 11 city elementary schools.

The boards should take walkability into consideration more when they decide to close schools, said Coun. Brian McHattie of Ward 1. He sits on the joint city and school board relations committee, which discussed the charter on Thursday.

Transportation is a factor in the accommodation review committee (ARC) process, said Jessica Brennan. Committees make sure walking and bus distances are in acceptable. The provincial limit is no more than one kilometre for a kindergarten student, 1.6 kilometres for Grades 1 to 8 and 3.2 kilometres for a high school student, and no more than 30 minutes on a bus each way.

School funding formula outdated, expert says

“As we move into longer distances between home and school, or more stops between home and school, that is an issue and that is part of the ARC.”

Tuesday’s meeting was the first meeting in nearly a year for a relations committee that includes the city and the HWDSB. It was the first meeting in nearly 10 years for a liaison committee that includes the city and both school boards, although Brennan said she couldn’t find evidence her board had ever attended. Both meetings were held back to back on Thursday.

The school closure issue dominated the second meeting. Bill Irwin, a professor in economics and business at Huron University College in London, presented his findings on the impact of school closures.

School closures cause a loss of community identity, Irwin said. And they’re based on a provincial funding formula established 17 years ago, “when the demographic makeup of the province was significantly different than it is today.”

He suggested boards press for a funding formula used in some areas of Europe that’s based on individual student needs to meet a knowledge-based economy rather than “a head count.”

How bad is traffic at your local school?

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