Students across Ottawa have returned to school and we know most of them arrive by bus or private vehicle. Across Canada, 74 per cent get to school by motorized transportation including, shockingly, 53 per cent of students who live within a five-minute walking distance. School zones have become overrun with increasingly large vehicles and many parents are uncomfortable with their kids walking or biking to school. This fear creates a vicious circle as those parents drive, creating more car traffic in the area, a problem worsened by the school-bus driver shortage.
Around the world and in Canadian cities such as Kingston, Markham, Mississauga, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, this is changing with the creation of “School Streets.” School streets are temporary walking and biking corridors that allow children exclusive use of the road immediately in front of their school. They are specific to each school’s surrounding context and adaptable to accessibility needs. School streets can be set up for 30 to 60 minutes during pick-up and drop-off times, with barricades and volunteers or more permanent installations such as gates. In Paris, these temporary projects have been so successful they are being permanently converted to car-free spaces with additional trees and greenery.
These quick and inexpensive initiatives have immense benefits for children. They are one of the few urban spaces where kids are safe from the threat of motor vehicles, a leading cause of child death in Canada. Seventeen Canadian children were killed while walking in 2020 and many more are seriously injured each year. School streets reduce localized air pollution, which children are particularly vulnerable to, by 40 to 65 per cent. They reduce noise pollution and increase healthy physical activity. Currently, in Canada, only 28 per cent of children get the recommended 60 minutes of activity per day. School streets have been shown to provide social connection and greater independence for growing kids. These benefits translate to better learning and academic conditions.
School streets also benefit the entire community. They lead to fewer car trips, which equals less pollution and traffic. Data from just one school in the U.K. showed that its school street led to a decrease of 96,000 car trips in only one year. The school street habit can lead to better health and climate outcomes and lower social costs for decades to come.
These benefits completely align with the City of Ottawa’s priorities on the climate emergency, and push forward the visions of the new Official Plan and Transportation Master Plan: to meet diverse mobility needs; to promote better public health; to improve safety; to reduce automobile dependence; to integrate transportation and land use; and to protect the environment.
Nowhere are these priorities more important than at our schools, benefiting our youngest and most vulnerable and leading the next generation to be able to live in alignment with the guiding principles of these plans.
In the Transportation Master Plan, city officials opened the door to piloting School Streets in Ottawa. One school, Trille des Bois in Vanier, has already run a successful pilot with the support of Coun. Stephanie Plante and the school parent council. We want to see real commitment and funding to support the implementation of School Streets and more support for safe and active travel by children across the city.
If you agree, raise this idea with your local councillor, community association or school council. You can also join hundreds of community members at this weekend’s Kidical Mass Ride, at 9:30 am Sunday at Sylvia Holden Park.
It is time for Ottawa to make a clear commitment to a School Streets program and other enhancements because a city that is healthy for kids is a city that is good for everyone.
Cassie Smith is an Ottawa-based researcher focused on sustainable urban mobility, a parent of two young children, and a member of School Streets Ottawa, a coalition of local volunteers advocating for safe and healthy journeys to school. Chris Hircock is a parent of a middle school student and the founder of School Streets Ottawa. Reach them at: [email protected] and www.schoolstreetsottawa.ca