Kids are walking and biking to school again. Here are some ways their commute is being made safer

·4 min read
Adira and Mikaela Wunderlich are among the thousands of B.C. kids headed back to school this week. (Kathryn Marlow/CBC - image credit)
Adira and Mikaela Wunderlich are among the thousands of B.C. kids headed back to school this week. (Kathryn Marlow/CBC - image credit)

A new academic year means traffic will be building up around schools this week, with many families opting for alternative ways to get the kids to class to avoid the headaches of the school run.

But while there are benefits to leaving the car at home, some parents say infrastructure still has to be improved around schools for those who walk or bike to class — something local governments say they're actively working on.

Rebecca Freedman said her daughters Adira and Mikaela Wunderlich have been using bikes for transportation since they started daycare, and they now bike to and from school and other activities in Victoria.

"It opens up so much freedom and opportunities," Freedman said. "The time-saving, not having to park. Schools are really congested in the morning with all sorts of vehicles. It really simplifies your life."

Freedman's daughters are noticing the benefits, too.

"Biking clears my mind, kind of," 11-year-old Adira said. "I get really stressed a lot, so it's a really good way to start the day and it's a lot easier to get through the day when you have a clear mind at the start."

"It's fun and quick and it's better for the environment," nine-year-old Mikaela said.

Freedman, who says teaching her kids road safety has been paramount, encourages other families to leave the car at home.

However, she notes that while safe infrastructure for walking and biking to school has greatly improved over the years, there's still work to be done.

According to ICBC, 31 children between the ages of five and 18 are injured in crashes while walking or riding their bike in B.C. each month, and 66 children are hurt in crashes within playground zones each year.

That's where planners like Emily Sinclair come in. Sinclair runs a program called Ready Step Roll for the Capital Regional District in southern Vancouver Island, working with municipalities and schools to make it safer for children to bike or walk to school.

Kathryn Marlow
Kathryn Marlow

For the past six years, the program has worked with five schools each year to identify and address barriers to a car-free commute.

Solutions have included installing pedestrian-activated signals to cross the road with a signal time that's appropriate for children, Sinclair said.

"Some of the other things that people might be seeing popping up as you drive around the region are the use of bollards or those flexible plastic pylons," she added. "They can also be used to create spaces where cars aren't supposed to travel."

She said the program measures its success by the number of education and infrastructure measures they can implement over 12 months — but also by reducing the number of people driving to schools, thereby promoting exercise and reducing greenhouse gases.

Sinclair said results data for the program will next be released at the end of 2023.

Kathryn Marlow/CBC
Kathryn Marlow/CBC

The City of Langford, a suburb west of Victoria, is also making an effort to make the school commute safer for all — including families whose circumstances mean they have no option but to drive to school.

"Nowadays I think with a lot of for affordability reasons both parents have to work or the guardians are working or the grandparents are working ... and sometimes they do have to drive them to school because the school bus might come later or too early or something like that," said Michelle Mahovlich, the city's director of engineering.

The city has partnered with the local school district and ICBC and received provincial grants to update infrastructure, including building a roundabout to keep traffic flowing, limiting left turns in some areas and adding crossing lights.

In nearby Sooke, school district superintendent Scott Stinson said separating vehicles from cyclists and pedestrians has been key.

At one middle school, they've also brought in a lit crosswalk — particularly helpful during the dark winter months — as well as designated bike lanes. They also encourage pickup and drop-off a few minutes before and after the morning and afternoon bell, respectively, to minimize congestion.

"Trying to help parents understand those different pieces and then doing the infrastructure piece to make sure that that's easy for them is important," Stinson said.