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Working Together, Walking Together

Tuesday, September 2, 2014 - 09:58

How Active Transportation is Strengthening Communities & Helping York Region Students Lead Healthy, Active Lives

When it comes to using forms of active transportation—such as walking or biking to school—the Active Healthy Kids Canada Report Card[i] has once again given Canadian children a failing grade—a D, along with a D- for overall physical activity.

"Only seven percent of Canadian children and youth get the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity a day," comments Dr. Richard Gould, MD, MHSc, FRCPC, Associate Medical Officer of Health, The Regional Municipality of York. "Travelling to school on foot or on a bicycle can routinely build activity needed into the day."

What’s more, increased physical activity for students is just one of the benefits of using active transportation. Schools in York Region—where strong collaborative efforts are being made to promote active transportation—are seeing some results that have far exceeded their expectations. These range from increased concentration in class to strengthened community ties. In fact, some of the initiatives that are underway are even changing the designs of the communities themselves, creating a more pedestrian-friendly environment for all. 

Why don’t more students walk?

While we all know that staying active is essential to our health and well-being and that walking or biking are great exercise, when faced with busy schedules and the hectic morning rush, it’s hardly surprising that driving kids to school can seem like the quickest, easiest, and safest option for many families.

“One of the things we notice is parent perceptions of safety,” says Teija Cumming, Active Healthy Communities Public Health Nurse with the Regional Municipality of York. “There are also attitudinal barriers. Driving can seem easier. We have a ‘culture of convenience' in Canada.”[ii]

Inclement weather, the difficulty of pushing strollers for younger siblings, long distances to school in rural communities and a lack of proper infrastructure (e.g., crossing signals, bike racks and connected sidewalks systems) are also commonly cited as barriers in older communities. In new subdivisions proper infrastructure and pedestrian walking facilities (trails and sidewalks) are addressed during the planning process.

What can students gain when they walk (or bike or scooter or skateboard or skip) to school?

What schools that promote the practice have found, however, is that the benefits of active transportation often work to counteract the barriers. For example, walking can actually be more convenient than driving, as time-consuming traffic congestion around schools is relieved by more families walking. Likewise, a recent study from Sick Kids Hospital has shown that the rate of child pedestrian crashes does not increase in neighbourhoods where there are more children walking to school. In fact, such areas are less likely to have collisions—due, in part, to heightened driver awareness.[iii]

“It promotes the safety not only of children, but also of adults,” comments Laura Lueloff, a community ambassador for fitness and parent champion at Rick Hansen Public School in Aurora. “When we have more pedestrian traffic we have less vehicular transportation. It means less traffic and less potential for danger.”

Parent fears about neighbourhood safety also tend to be allayed when walking becomes a regular part of a family’s routine. “They get to know their community and find the most appropriate and safe routes to school,” says Cumming. Using active transportation is also a natural way for parents to impart safety information to their children.  “By nature, when we walk, we’re educating our children,” says Cumming. “They’re learning about sustainable transportation and how to be environmental stewards.” Using active transportation on days when the weather is less-than-favourable can even help children learn about the importance of making appropriate clothing choices.

There are also social benefits to active transportation—including increased family time and time spent with peers, as well as more opportunities to get to know neighbours.

How can we get more families walking?

In 2010, a school travel planning pilot project was conducted in York Region, with results reported nationally through Green Communities Canada. Some of the findings included a 28% reduction in car usage, a 20% increase in walking to school on Walking Wednesdays and a shift from 70% driving to school to 70% walking to school within the first three weeks.

How did they do it? In York Region, the key has been found in working together. “School boards, nine local municipalities and York Region are continuously collaborating to bring more awareness to Active Safe Routes to School,” says Jamal Massadeh, Traffic/Transportation Analyst for the Town of Aurora.

Schools within York Region are also fortunate to have access to a Safe Routes to School Facilitator, Sonia Sanita, who works jointly for the public and catholic school boards. She assists schools in promoting active transportation and facilitating the school travel planning process and works as a liaison between schools and public health nurses, who can provide resources and programming. She also collaborates with municipal staff and York Region staff to help enhance community safety by focusing on improving infrastructure to facilitate the movement of pedestrians and cyclists, and supports the assessment of the built environment around schools.

As part of the collective work done in York Region, the Town of Aurora has a School Travel Planning Policy that has seen improvements made to the way traffic is managed around schools and has brought forth a consolidated strategy for encouraging more pedestrian activity. A subcommittee that includes representatives from the municipality, from public health and from school boards is leading the charge.

The 5 E’s of Active Transportation

Within the region’s schools themselves, teamwork has also yielded some outstanding results. At Rick Hansen Public School, for example, a group of dedicated educators and parent volunteers have made promoting active transportation a priority and a point of pride.

Rick Hansen is a new school, in a new subdivision in Aurora. Since opening its doors two years ago they’ve championed a variety of healthy living initiatives. They were the recipient of the Green Communities Canada and Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Active School Travel Award in 2013. They’ve also been certified as a gold-level EcoSchool by Ontario EcoSchools in recognition of their environmental practices. 

“There’s a focus on physical activity and healthy living built into all we do,” says Steve Gardner, the school’s principal. “We’ve also worked to create a sense of community right from the start.”

Rick Hansen has an Active Healthy Schools Committee, championed by parent volunteers. Using school travel planning documents from Metrolinx as their guide, the group has worked to brainstorm and carry out activities promoting active transportation. Many Safe Routes to School resources describe the components of promoting active transportation using 5 E’s: Encouragement, Engineering, Education, Enforcement and Evaluation. “We followed pretty much all of them to a tee,” explains Lueloff.

A little Encouragement goes a long way.

The first E stands for Encouragement.  At each month’s character traits assembly, two parent volunteers make a highly-anticipated appearance to recognize students for making healthy choices and to spread the word about upcoming walk-to-school and healthy schools initiatives. These events include regular Walking Wednesdays that incorporate fresh themes to keep student engagement high. “We’ve talked about a conga line theme or a scavenger hunt in the neighbourhood families can do as they walk to school,” says Gardner.

One such event was a Walking Wednesday held on one of the coldest days of the winter. Despite the chilly temperature, it ended up being one of their most successful walk-to-school events of the year. “We had snow painting and an Olympic theme,” recalls Gardner. “It just goes to show, create the right conditions, and they’ll come!”

Engineering and enforcement essential.

When it comes to the next two E’s—Enforcement and Engineering—Rick Hansen has been working with the municipality to address concerns about one intersection where an all-way stop may be needed, and the parent volunteers have been lobbying for a crossing guard to increase student safety.

The next E stands for Engineering. “Where new bike racks were added in one school, traffic congestion moved from the street to the bike racks!” says Cumming, of another local school’s success in altering their environment to promote active transportation. Meanwhile, seeing their own bike racks well-used, Rick Hansen Public School took things one step further.

“We see so many students scootering and skateboarding to school,” says Gardner. To help encourage this, the school dedicated a large hallway near an entrance door to scooter and skateboard parking. “We’re calling it Scooter Alley,” says Gardner, of the 40-foot wall where the skateboards and scooters are safely stored on hooks during the school day.

Education plays a vital role.

At the assemblies the parent volunteers also educate students about the positive impact active transportation can have. “Myself and my fellow parent champion, Helena Barkla, broke it down that if every student walked just five days a month, we’d save so much in gas money and prevent so many pounds of pollution,” says Lueloff, by way of an example. “We try to make those connections in hopes of getting kids more excited about using active transportation.”

Last year, the school also hosted a two-day bike carnival that saw students learning about road safety, how to tune up a bike, the importance of wearing a helmet and more. “I’ll never forget the glee and excitement of one child when he learned to ride his two-wheeler for the first time,” recalls Lueloff.

Educators also regularly look for opportunities to tie walk-to-school and other healthy living initiatives into the curriculum. For example, their 25 minutes of school-wide DPA often relate to walking, and the results of a staff pedometer challenge found their way into math lessons as part of a unit on data management. 

It evolves with Evaluation.

To address the last ‘E’—Evaluation—one of the committee’s activities was to put together a survey for families. The intent was to find out what was holding them back from using active transportation to get to and from school. Once they understood the barriers faced by families—which included time constraints, inclement weather and some safety and infrastructure concerns—they were in an even better position to work to address them.

Parents and teachers are leading the way.

While some educators in York Region have already noticed improvements in student well-being, perhaps most exciting are the benefits active transportation can have on entire school communities. After all, when parents and teachers take it upon themselves to lead by example, they reap the benefits too and that, in turn, encourages children to make active transportation a lifelong habit.  In this way, even the smallest steps can have a big impact.

“We live in a fast-paced world,” says Gardner. “Cars are convenient. We’re not naive enough to think all families in our school can walk every day.” For this reason, the school launched an initiative called Park and Walk a Block. “It’s a bit of a hybrid—a way of supporting families,” says Gardner of the initiative, which encourages parents who drive to park up the street (where parking is permitted) and walk the last one or two blocks to school with their children.

Likewise, teachers at the school are doing what they can to model active transportation. “Actions speak so much louder than words!” says Lueloff. “As a parent, it’s so valuable for me to be able to talk to my kids about how their H&PE teacher is riding their bike to school, or how there are teachers who go for a run on their lunch hours.”

Reach out for help and to find resources.

If a school is looking to promote active transportation, the best way to start is to reach out for help. Local public health units are great resources, as are organizations like Active & Safe Routes to School, Canada Walks and Walk Friendly Ontario.

“Start at the grassroots level,” suggests Lueloff. “See if you can get some parents involved. Look for staff members who share the philosophy and who can be good role models, then reach out to see what kinds of resources your town can offer.”

 “One of the most important things we need to think about when working on active transportation within our schools is to make sure we have a strong, committed stakeholder group engaged to do the work collectively,” agrees Cumming. “It can’t be done in isolation.” After all—building a safe and healthy community is everyone’s responsibility—and when we create an environment that encourages everyone to walk, we all win.

[i] 2014 Active Healthy Kids Canada Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth. Toronto: Active Healthy Kids Canada, 2014.  

[ii] 2014 Active Healthy Kids Canada Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth. Toronto: Active Healthy Kids Canada, 2014. 

[iii]Kane, Laura. Kids’ rates of walking to school not linked to crashes: study. Toronto Star, April, 2014.

Great article - thank-you for covering the York Region experience!!!!
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