A version of this article first appeared in the September issue of the Ottawa South Community Association Review, published with permission from the editor.
Another summer is over and now families have shifted their routines around the return to school. Many families may choose a routine of starting and ending the school day by walking, riding a bike or scooter to school, after all Old Ottawa South is one of the most walkable communities in Ottawa. However the choice to make an active trip to school is not that easy for many families.
You can see why anyone would be discouraged to walk or ride when you observe a typical day dropping off and picking up kids at Hopewell Ave Public School at 9:00 and 3:30pm: hundreds of kids and families converge upon the school in a short time, at the same time drivers look to pass through this community corridor, all leading to high stress points between drivers, crossing guards, pedestrians, cyclists. We submit that vehicular traffic at this location not only presents a safety risk to kids already on foot and bike but it unfortunately discourages many parents and kids who would also like to do the same.
Residents and children on the morning walk to school at Hopewell Ave on crowded sidewalks and crosswalks. The volume of vehicle traffic, the space it removes from active transport, can make for an anxious trip to school for those on foot and bike.
Hopewell Ave Public School has had a long history of trying different solutions to manage the risk of traffic through Hopewell Ave, each generation comes up with a solution however the problem remains: the volume of vehicle traffic, the space it removes from active transportation, can make for a stressful trip to school for those on foot or bike.
The good news is there is a solution, one that has been piloted in Hamilton, Mississauga, Markham and Vancouver: a School Street. A School Street is a temporary exclusive walking corridor established during pick up and drop off times, usually set up with barricades at each end. It approaches school zone safety not by mitigating risk of a hazard at the expense of hiring more crossing guards, nor by having teachers and principals outside managing traffic, but by simply removing the hazard. In other words making a part of Hopewell Ave car-free during pick up and drop off hours.
The goals of a School Street are simple: create a safe environment for kids to safely walk and cycle to school; encourage healthy active travel and promote independent mobility; reduce locally generated congestion and improve air quality; and foster a community connection.
A recent study done by Green Communities Canada and Ontario Active School Travel found that barely 2/3s of Canadian children are meeting daily physical activity recommendations; and that children could who walk or ride a bike to school can achieve half of their daily physical activity. This same study iterates the link between physical activity and cognitive and academic development. It demonstrates that being outside fosters a connection to the natural world, and speaks to the case to encourage active transportation through policy and transportation design. The question of potential traffic displacement to adjacent streets will be a concern for any community. A School Street in Birmingham UK found that overall neighbourhood traffic levels decreased due to the reduced amount of drop off traffic.
Now we know that setting up a School Street is not without its challenges. A lot of planning and communications with the community will need to take place, it will require volunteer efforts to set up and take down, most of all it requires community advocacy and municipal leadership. On that note, Councilor Shawn Menard has offered his unequivocal support for piloting a School Street at Hopewell Ave in his reply to the School Streets Ottawa Municipal Questionnaire.
As for the next steps, the Ottawa South Community Association Traffic and Safety Committee will work with all stakeholders including the city, School Streets Ottawa and the Councillor to iron out logistical and legal considerations. This will also require a shift in mindset from city staff that Hopewell Avenue is a community corridor through which our kids can move independently, actively and safely.
We submit that a School Street pilot at Hopewell Ave is a big idea whose time has come, an idea not without its challenges as with any community change-making, but with that lies opportunity in the lessons learned, and to adapt its successes to schools and communities in Ottawa who want to do the same. In summary, it is important we do the things to make our community safe for kids to move independently and actively, it sends a message to our kids that their trip is an important one, therefore a School Street at Hopewell Ave is an idea worth piloting.