School commutes adding to chronic traffic congestion

Over the past two weeks, driving in Metro Vancouver has been the way I remember it used to be.

Getting around to appointments or shopping destinations, or even up to the North Shore mountains for some recreation, has been a breeze. I have often arrived ahead of schedule. Even though the Christmas break usually ends after New Year’s Day, my commutes to work this week have been calm affairs.

So, what has become of our region that getting around in your vehicle seems so much less stressful?

Well, I hate to break it to you, but starting on Monday, that bumper-to-bumper experience is coming back. That is because our kids are going back to school after an extended break to Jan. 8.

And whether we care to admit it, we spend a lot of time ferrying kids to and from school in our cars. A study of traffic in greater Toronto found the number of children and teens walking or biking to school has declined to the point that school travel is now responsible for 20% of peak morning gridlock in that region, and it is no different here.

It is amazing to think that one in five drivers on the road during your morning commute could be taxiing kids to school.

The study also indicated that just 39% of 11- to 13-year-olds walked to school in 2011 compared to 56% in 1986. And only 12% of kids that age got a car ride to school in ’86 — now, 31% do.

Try to get near almost any school in your vehicle around 8:30 a.m. or past 3 p.m. and you will see how much we have come to rely upon cars for getting to and from classes.

And I am just as guilty, shuttling my daughter to and from her out-of-catchment high school a few days of the week — and doing this in spite of personally promoting walk-to-school initiatives in the past.

In case you doubt my assertion, the holiday break over Christmas is not the only time we see this big dip in traffic. It happens again in July and August, when schools are closed. Traffic reports on the impact of back-to-school drivers are now an annual occurrence.

Our politicians usually take it on the chin when drivers get frustrated by traffic. We complain — sometimes loudly and often on social media — about how aggravating it is to get around here. We blame street repair projects and construction for the slowdowns. Rarely do we discuss other sources of the high traffic volumes.

Interview with Michael Smyth on CKNW Radio

There are other long-term impacts on society thanks to parents driving kids, such as lower fitness levels and higher obesity among adults.

Children who walk or bike to school are typically more active, and active children tend to become active adults. You cannot blame parents for wanting to make sure their kids get to school safely. But paradoxically, they are creating potentially less safe streets around school zones. There are reports from around the world where road rage around schools has led to honking, cursing and fender benders.

In response to the local study, Toronto city planner Jennifer Keesmaat responded that getting children to walk to school could have a greater impact than any “big-vision, billion-dollar schemes.”

“We need to rebuild the culture around walking,” she said. “It’s a much more profound infrastructure investment than any roads or subway we can build.”

Indeed, my observation is that in spite of the growing concern about school-related gridlock, school boards only make half-hearted attempts to encourage walking or cycling.

They can be forgiven for not shouldering the entire burden, however. Our municipal governments and local health authorities have a big role to play in supporting a culture change through collaborations to promote active transportation and improve the pedestrian experience.

Through such efforts, we could conceivably save billions on health and infrastructure spending, and enjoy a life less burdened by traffic gridlock.


Originally published in Vancouver Courier, Burnaby Now, and Tri-City News.