B.C. to promote walking or biking to school, but parents point to barriers like heavy traffic, bike thieves

When Roberta Dionello and her partner bought their East Vancouver home a few years ago, they pictured their children walking the breezy 500 metres to their neighbourhood school. 

But when Dionello's daughter was put on a long wait list to get into that school, she realized her dream of walking her daughter to class would be dashed. 

"I was absolutely flabbergasted," she said. "We're not going to be able to go to the school that's two blocks away."  

Parents like Dionello say they would like their children to walk or bike to school, but they face barriers that range from busy roadways, a lack of after-school care and not enough bike racks to stop theft. 

Less than 25 per cent of students across B.C. use active transportation to get to school, according to a written statement from the Ministry of Transportation, which recently announced plans for a pilot program to encourage active transportation options like walking and cycling. 

The pilot program, which is set to be developed by non-profit organization B.C. Healthy Communities, will launch late this spring.  

According to a notice on the government website B.C. Bid, the $400,000 pilot program will give money to local governments and school districts to program and plan for active school transportation.

Some school districts, like Vancouver and Victoria, already have active transportation plans in place.

Submitted by Roberta Dionelli

But many parents are wary about sending their kids to school by foot or bike.

Responding to a post on a Vancouver Facebook group, many shared their fears about bad drivers, potential predators and coordinating multiple drop offs before work.

"Living in East Van, bikes constantly get stolen," said one parent. "Not everyone can afford to constantly replace bikes or stolen parts."

"My sense is that it is currently not a socially accepted norm for a child to walk unaccompanied," said another.

Health researcher and professor Mariana Brussoni acknowledges the many challenges that parents face trying to get their kids to school by foot or bike — including busy schedules, multiple drop-offs and schools that are too far away.

Brussoni says research shows it doesn't take much for parents to be more likely to drive their kids instead — schools just need to be further than one kilometre away. 

But she also says that many of the barriers that parents face are driven by fears, not fact, and may be causing more harm in the long run. 

"It's actually never been a safer time to be a child in Canada than it is right now," Brussoni said, adding that the chance of stranger abduction is about one in 14 million. "The leading cause of death is putting kids in cars." 

Ben Nelms/CBC

She says walking and cycling to school offers many environmental, societal and health benefits. 

"It's one way to reduce traffic," Brussoni said. "But also what we're seeing is that we have an obesity crisis and children who aren't meeting physical activity levels."

When kids walk or bike to school, she says, they interact more with their community and are better able to concentrate by time they arrive for class. And the community benefits as well — people feel safer when they see children in their neighbourhood, Brussoni says.

Brussoni hopes the province's pilot project will help address some parents' barriers, and encourage more children to get to school by foot or by bike. 

The cities of Vancouver and Toronto have some of the highest rates of active transportation for school kids, Brussoni says, adding that a large part of that is because of the many schools throughout its communities. 

Brussoni says changes in where people choose to live and policies that have favoured cars over pedestrians have put that at risk. 

"We need to rethink some of this," she said, calling for a renewed need for community-based schools.