Research conducted by a team at York University does not support the claim that a new drop-off loop is the linchpin of safety for students at Le Marchant-St. Thomas. A previous article has already illustrated how a proposed drop-off loop will create a collision zone between vehicles and children. In their findings, published in the Journal of Traffic Injury Prevention, the research team states that a “modal shift” from automobiles to walking and biking is the key action which decreases child pedestrian motor vehicle collisions (PMVCs) in walkable communities.
Researchers looked at 118 elementary schools in older sections of Toronto (versus, what the study refers to as “car-oriented post World War II neighborhoods”). Examining data over a 12-year period, there were a total of 1850 child PMVCs. Of these collisions, 983 involved a hospital visit or stay and 5 children died.
When examining the behavior of parent drivers, the team found that the most dangerous scenario was where a child was dropped off on the opposite side of the street (relative to a school) and the child executed what’s referred to as an “uncontrolled midblock crossing”.
When speaking of approaches to reduce PMVCs, mitigation strategy is entirely rooted in educating parents and working with them to increase the percentage of active transportation within a school community. The authors go on to say,
- Potential interventions directed at these drivers should include the promotion of a transportation modal shift by schools and health care professionals from driving to walking to school.
- It has been demonstrated that walking to school is safe in terms of pedestrian collisions, providing the built environment around schools is safe. More children walking to school would result in increased pedestrian safety by reducing the vehicular traffic.
- Active school transportation also has many benefits beyond safety, including being a source of physical activity to encourage healthy active lifestyles and the reduction of the prevalence of obesity and its associated chronic conditions. (Study, p13)
Nowhere in their findings do researchers suggest that introducing a drop-off loop in a walking school (which will encourage more vehicular traffic) is an appropriate strategy. What schools in Ontario, other parts of Canada and abroad are doing however is taking active transportation seriously and developing school transportation plans. The Government of Ontario, specifically, released a publication titled School Travel Planning in Action: Successes and Lessons in Active and Sustainable School Transportation. The City of Toronto actually held an Active Transportation Summit which tied into the City's Five Year Plan.
School Travel Planning: An Alternative Solution to Addressing Traffic Congestion at LMST
Given the evidence against the claim that drop-off loops promote a safer environment near the schools, it is appropriate to find alternative solutions to address traffic congestion at LMST.
In 2011-2012, LMST principal Ms. Pauline Murray worked closely with the Ecology Action Centre and members of the community to develop a LMST-specific School Transportation Plan that focused on decreasing traffic around the school by increasing the number of children walking and biking to school. The introduction of LMST’s 46-page plan reads as follows:
“School Travel Planning (STP) is a community-based approach that aims to increase the number of children choosing active transportation modes to get to and from school. An increase in the number of students walking, cycling, taking transit, and carpooling to school helps to address important issues of sustainability, safety, and health associated with the school run.” (LMST STP, page 2)
The stated benefits of School Travel Planning (page 34 of the document) are as follows:
"School Travel Planning aims to decrease the number of car trips and increase the number of children walking and cycling to and from school resulting in:
- Improved health & fitness of the students;
- Improved safety for students;
- Reduced congestion and reduced principal time wasted dealing with traffic issues and complaints;
- Positive environmental impacts; reducing pollution, improved air quality, fewer greenhouse gas emissions that impact climate change;
- Potential cost savings; opportunity for parents to reduce expenditures on gas, chance for school boards to reduce busing costs, chance for schools to save staff time in long term as recurrent safety issues are dealt with and parent complaints decline." (LMST STP, page 31)
Unfortunately, the investment made by the school community up to 2012 was not leveraged, and the LMST School Travel Plan has sat on the shelf unused – despite its direct applicability to increasing traffic congestion at the school. The lack of involvement in the STP program effectively halted momentum to advance objectives relating to health, child safety, sustainability, and traffic reduction. At this juncture, given research findings published in the Journal of Traffic Injury Prevention and all the benefits associated with active transportation, the expectation is that LMST will actively use the strategies laid out in the Action Plan in an effort to achieve the plan’s objective of reducing “motor vehicle use” by parents by 20%. (LMST STP, p. 22).
Problems associated with the continual uptick in percentage of parents driving children to school are not obscure. A great deal of has been written about increasing traffic around schools and the need for active transportation programs of the sort that are now relatively well established in parts of Canada and elsewhere. Many others schools far less pedestrian-oriented than LMST are rethinking their laissez-fare relationship with the automobile. In an article about South Windsor’s Talbot Elementary School we find the following statements:
- “There’s little chance the board will spend precious dollars on more asphalt to expand parking lots.”
- “We might make the problem worse if we make it easier to accommodate more cars,”
- “People living close to schools should be having their kids walk,” he said. “It’s a matter of health and fitness with all the concerns about childhood obesity.”
- “I think some just feel better seeing their child walk through the school doors,” Scantlebury said. “It’s a cultural thing we have to change.”
Given the research findings and sheer number of articles calling attention to very real problems associated with higher number of parents driving their kids to school it seems reasonable to conclude that most who are familiar with these problems would look askance at the suggestion that encouraging more driving is a good thing.
As has been said elsewhere, the solutions to LMST’s increasing traffic and safety are rooted in behavioral changes (attitude changes) not more car-oriented infrastructure. Let’s hope we can focus on the right solutions moving forward and focus on human beings rather than cars in Halifax. Providing the school community with the option to update LMST's School Travel Plan and implement it would be a good first start.