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The Perspective
The Perspective

August 16, 2016

Built for walking: Safe environments for active school travel

Photo of Andrew Howard and Linda Rothman

Dr. Linda Rothman is a research manager at SickKids and Postdoctoral Fellow at York University. Dr. Andrew Howard is a senior scientist and orthopaedic surgeon at SickKids and Professor in the departments of Surgery & Health Policy, Management & Evaluation at the University of Toronto. Their research focuses on the prevention of road traffic injuries to children and specializes in the trauma and epidemiology of unintentional childhood injury including pedestrian and cyclist injuries.  

Children are heading back to school in just a few weeks. In September, we will see traffic congestion in our neighbourhoods, particularly around school drop-off and pick-up times. Walking or cycling to school has many benefits such as more physical activity, better air quality,  a stronger sense of community and decreased traffic congestion. Despite this, many parents will decide to drive their children to school. In fact, the number of children walking or biking to school has decreased drastically over the last 20 years.

Many parents worry about traffic danger, and rightfully so. In the first nine months of 2013, 114 child pedestrians (ages 0 to 14) were struck by vehicles in Toronto. Child pedestrians are more likely to be severely or fatally injured when struck by cars compared with adult pedestrians.

But walking to school does not have to lead to pedestrian collisions. Toronto is working towards Vision Zero: the long-term goal of zero motor vehicle fatalities. Our research, which has been done in conjunction with Dr. Alison Macpherson at York University,  Dr. Ron Buliung at University of Toronto, Mississauga and Dr. Colin Macarthur at SickKids, shows the most effective pedestrian safety strategies focus on the built environment, the man-made surroundings where we live and work in our neighbourhoods, and design of our roads. We want to make it safe for children to walk to school so our children gain the benefits of a healthy active lifestyle. Getting out of our cars and back onto the streets creates an environment that is better for everyone.  

What can we do to make our roads safer for our children this fall?

  • Lower traffic speeds on all residential streets  

Last fall, speed limits on some local roads within our city reduced speed limits from 40 to 30 km/hr. This is an important step to reduce death and serious injury in people of all ages and needs to be done on all of our residential streets. Lower vehicle speeds mean fewer pedestrian collisions and a substantially reduced chance of a severe or fatal outcome.

  • More traffic calming

Traffic calming measures, such as speed humps, slows traffic down. Speed humps are particularly effective at reducing child pedestrian collisions. We need traffic calming near schools. Many other types of traffic calming can work in locations where speed humps are not appropriate, for example traffic circles or pinch points which narrow a section of the road.  

  • Fewer one-way streets around schools

There is a greater risk of collision for child pedestrians on one-way streets. This may be because of higher speeds, drivers paying less attention with no traffic coming the opposite way, and children having difficulty crossing one-way streets.

  • Reduce road crossings

If children don’t have to cross the road, they won’t be exposed to traffic. We need to encourage the planning of safe routes to school. We also need to design our neighbourhoods with more off-road walkways and trails for our children to commute to school. Where crossing is necessary, intersections need to be made safe for people of all ages.

  • Safer driving around schools

Dangerous driving during school drop-off times is associated with higher collision rates around schools. Parents frequently drop children off across the road from school, which forces them to cross in front of traffic. Cars double park and make dangerous U-turns.  Speeding occurs on major roads where children walk to school. Drivers dropping children off at schools and those passing through school neighbourhoods need to drive responsibly to keep our children safe.

  • Reduce social inequities in pedestrian injuries

Children from areas with greater social disadvantage are at greater risk of pedestrian injuries. Active school transportation use (for example walking, cycling, rollerblading, and/or skateboarding to name a few) also varies by cultural background. We need to ensure that built environments around schools are safe and encourage walking in ALL neighbourhoods and for all ages throughout Toronto.

  • Take an active role in school travel planning

Schools and parents should get involved with community-based initiatives such as Active & Safe Routes to School. Parents tell us that not just the immediate school traffic environment, but the whole route to school needs to be safer for child pedestrians. Open dialogue between schools, school boards, city and regional planners, Toronto police, and researchers can improve active safe school transportation.   

We all want our children to be safe and healthy when travelling to and from school. The best way to do this is to get us all out of our cars and build the safest walking environment possible.